Man in a Sidecar: Madness, Totality and Narrative Drive in the Short Story

By Armstrong, Tim | Postmodern Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Man in a Sidecar: Madness, Totality and Narrative Drive in the Short Story


Armstrong, Tim, Postmodern Studies


Abstract Taking as its starting point the philosopher Stanley Cavell's brief reflections on Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse" and writing as self-understanding, self-concealment and madness - and as its founding image Cary Grant speaking of love alone in a sidecar in I Was a Male War Bride - this paper considers the relation between totality and incompleteness in the short story, focusing in particular on the incompletion of desire as a way of discussing the formal issues involved. If the modernist short story is so often thought of as an emblem of formal closure (the single gesture or unitary narrative shape), it often deals with notions of interruption and nonpresence, and with a certain madness created by the inability to account for the other. The paper considers two classic modernist stories of incomplete desire - Joyce's "The Dead" and Katherine Mansfield's "The Stranger" - and compares them to two sets of postmodern short stories, the "chain stories" of the English writer David Mitchell and the stories of the American David Foster Wallace (in particular the title story of Oblivion), exploring the proposition that in the contemporary stories incompleteness is displaced from identity to the narrative in which the self is ostensibly located, radically changing the form itself. That suggestion can, finally, be related to the changed cultural position of the form within the publishing industry.

Keywords: totality, fragmentation, knowledge of others, domesticity, desire, subjectivity, madness, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace

In recent years, the modernism/postmodernism divide has increasingly come to seem a product of a rather local and often tendentious dialogue within a long twentieth century; one which in particular constructed modernism as the nervous, frosty and highcultural other to a hipper and more relaxed postmodernism. In most ways, it has become more productive to think of a long process of incomplete and more complete modernity in dialogue with its others; and from that point of view postmodernism has become more of a period term, dropping off university MA courses to be replaced by twenty-first century and contemporary literature, post 9/11 literature, and so on. But for all that, to abandon any account of shifts in literary form and its cultural logic over the last century is clearly impossible: we need ways to conceptualise differences between the early twentieth-century and the contemporary. This paper is a tentative attempt to do that in the field of the short story.

My understanding of the short story as genre is founded on its break with the tradition of the storyteller as described by Benjamin and its engagement with forms of commercial, psychological and stylistic modernity: the mass market; the registrations of intensities; nervousness; and formal control. We might take Edgar Allan Poe's letter to Charles Anthon in 1844 as emblematic of the emerging market:

I perceived that the whole energetic, busy spirit of the age tended wholly to the Magazine literature - to the curt, the terse, the welltimed, and the readily diffused, in preference to the old forms of the ponderous & the inaccessible. Letters 268)

Situating the short story in the context of the vibrant American print market, Poe describes an art conditioned by commodity status and by an audience whose attention span is limited. Its association with modernism, in contrast, derives from a formalist agenda which likens it to poetry. But this seeming opposition can, dialectically, be resolved in terms of the intensities demanded by the modern self: Poe's declaration in his review of Hawthorne that the story must be directed towards a "single effect" proposes an aesthetic which was to find an echo in Mallarmé and others:

If his [the writer's] very first sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then in his very first step he has committed a blunder. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. …

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