The American Short Story since 1950

By Kasia Boddy | Go to book overview

Conclusion

The short story often begins with ‘familiar material’:

Oh yes, the reader says: a couple quarrelling in a sidewalk restaurant, a
nine-year-old boy stealing a Scripto in Woolworth’s, a woman crying
in the bathtub. We’ve seen that before. We know where we are. Don’t
give us details; we don’t need them. What we need is surprise, a quick
turning of the wrist toward texture, or wisdom, something suddenly
broken or quickly repaired. Yes, we know these people. Now just tell
us what they do.1

Since 1950 the American short story has worked on many different kinds of familiar material and in a variety of ways, ‘violating’ expectations and undermining ‘stock scenes’, demanding that its readers question ideas and situations that might otherwise be ‘taken for granted’.2

Satire’s fondness for surprise violation, which attracted it to the short story from the outset, is a recurrent note in contemporary fiction. T. C. Boyle often begins with a recognisable type (‘The Hit Man’ or ‘The Love of My Life’) or a topical received opinion, such as that abortion is ‘Killing Babies’, and reduces it to violent absurdity3 In ‘My Amendment’, George Saunders uses a pun to expose the assumptions that lie behind objections to same-sex marriage. What if, instead of the law making an amendment to suit people, people amended themselves to suit the law? Otherwise, asks his narrator, ‘what will we have?’

A nation ruled by the anarchy of unconstrained desire. A nation of
wilful human hearts, each lurching this way and that, reaching out
for whatever it spontaneously desires, totally unconcerned about the
external form in which that desired thing is embodied.

That is not the kind of world in which I wish to live.4

Saunders’s stories tend to exaggerate to the point of dystopia some familiar aspect of our late capitalist world before introducing a character

-143-

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