I’m a sucker for short stories. Something about the art form of a writer focusing his efforts to tell a story not too short to be called a poem yet not too long to be called a novel draws me in. Perhaps, it’s the ability to read them in one sitting? You would think, then, I would like poetry as much, right? I like poetry but not as much as I enjoy the reading of a quality short story.
On my first attempt to renew this blog, I’m happy to announce that my first post of the new year will focus on my take on Stephanie Vaughn’s collection of short stories entitled Sweet Talk. (I finally found a copy of the book at the Strand so I just had to get it!)
Like Tobias Wolff, I too encountered Stephanie Vaughn through The New Yorker. Actually, Toby (can I call him Toby?) had a lot to do with it too. It was through The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast series that Tobias Wolff was asked to choose a story from their archives to read and discuss with fiction editor Deborah Treisman for his first appearance. (On his second appearance he chose Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”.)
In the 2012 Other Press edition of Sweet Talk, Tobias Wolff gives a warm introduction to his thoughts on Stephanie Vaughn’s short story collection. As he puts it, “though the stories vary in time and place and dramatis personae, there is a sort of spine running through the collection, and that is the cumulative, evolving portrait of Gemma’s family”. This is a short story collection that mostly (5 out of the 10 stories) centers around Gemma, the main character in which Vaughn focuses her stories.
“Story after story the confident adult world is revealed as a shaky edifice built not on rock but on sands yielding constantly to the influence of alcohol, war, bad luck, disease, and simple human frailty”.
Doesn’t this short story collection sound enticing?!
Spoiler Alert! –About to recap just one of my favorite stories, I suggest you read them all!– Spoiler Alert!
In the first story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” the father is introduced as a “tall and awesome” Army officer which Gemma’s grandmother (on her mother’s side) seems to constantly bicker about how her daughter should’ve married a minister instead. But like any authoritative father, Gemma’s father is dictatorial. He lays down the rules where at mealtimes he “lecture[s] on the mechanics of life” and on speaking with a “calculation and precision” that Gemma notices within him.
When you lose, don’t cry. When you win, don’t gloat. (6)
Vaughn also makes great use of the setting that she places her characters. One reoccurring symbol within two of her stories – “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” and “Dog Heaven” – is the mystifying might of the river.
“I don’t like the river,” [the mother says]. “I think it wants to hypnotize you” (10).
The river is described to have the power to draw you in literally but also mentally. In another instance, the father tells a story in which two men await their fate on a river barge “waiting to see whether in the next moment of their lives they would go over [the Falls].” The story concludes with their eventual rescue after staying still “all afternoon and night, listening to the sound of the water pounding into the boulders at the bottom of the gorge”. As they are asked to recount their stories, “the thinking man” talks about how he had spent the night playing poker in his head” while the other chooses not to speak.
He could not speak.
“The scream of the water entered his body,” said my father. He paused to let us think about that…
“He went insane” (11).
The first story takes a turn when Gemma’s father faces the reality that comes with a career falling apart. As his observant daughter, Gemma is there to see it, “not knowing the cause but knowing the consequences” (17) that come with it. As the story comes full fold, the tension between father and daughter comes to a daunting end. A father-daughter story that one can resonate with, provided beautifully by the details that Vaughn carefully chooses through her technique of language.
-End of Spoiler…kind of…-
The rest of the short stories included in the following order:
–“Sweet Talk” : an interesting story of love and invention. I liked how the characters take jabs at each other mentally, hoping to make their “sting of the[ir] intention to hurt” felt.
–“We’re on TV in the Universe” : a short story that kind of, kind of (bear with me!) resembles/reminded me of Denis Johnson’s short story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” from Jesus’ Son (perhaps because a car crash occurs during both).
I was going to a party where I imagined that I would be noticed as an interesting person… (52)
–“My Mother Breathing Light” : Centering around Gemma and her mother, death lingers in this story and hysteria develops between both women.
–“Other Women” : To preface this one….Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the ones we love. Harvey seems to love everyone, he doesn’t hate. Women are gravitated to him. As far as third wheeling goes, Susu (his ex-wife) takes the cake. The narrator finds a tough time grasping her presence until she realizes that Harvey isn’t as helplessly innocent of any wrong doing as he looks.
“He was always a sucker for the basket cases” (83)
–“Kid MacArthur” : Gemma’s brother is finally introduced!
–“The Architecture of California” : It isn’t easy to remodel yourself. A couple takes the challenge and tries to live healthy but as the wife comes to find out, it isn’t easy. Getting rid of a vice by substituting them with another vice is never the answer.
–“The Battle of Fallen Timbers” : Short story done with exact precision. Not everyone moves on especially when living in the past.
–“Snow Angel” : Written in the 3rd person, Marguerite, a young mother of two is stuck in a blizzard.
– and (the best was definitely saved for last) “Dog Heaven” : I urge everyone to read this. Listen to Tobias Wolff read it. It’s so worth it !
“I came to on the grass with the dog barking, ‘Wake up!’ he seemed to say. ‘Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!’” (165)
NOTE...dramatis personae was Tobias Wolff’s fancy word for the list of characters that mostly feature within a work…
P.S. …And he said no to Toby.