This story has filled me with rage. With anger. With stultifying anger that makes me stare at nothing as I take a deep breath, eyes prickling, awed and furious, touched and resentful. How could she write something so good? Who gave her the right to write such a powerful story? Who is she to be such a good writer? It is irrational, insane, but I pick up my own stories and gaze at the clumsy passes I made with my pen, the transparent emotions, the predictable developments, and feel fury.
This is a good story, no, it’s brilliant. It grows and grows, unfurling and blossoming in your chest, your head, your mind’s eye. You watch it develop, passage by passage, paragraph by paragraph, and suddenly you realize that this is more than what you thought, that it goes deeper, is wiser, more painful to read than you had thought possible. Character is trumped, and you realize that you are reading about people. You are reading about tragedy, pain, torment, self realization.
This is a short story.
How do these people deconstruct their characters so well? Byatt stands similarly accused, and I’m thinking here about her Chinese Lobster short story. How do they take these people and then crack them open, subject them to enough pressure that their hidden thoughts and secrets and fears and doubts can spilling out? How do they do it so naturally, so powerfully? Without ramming it through, without taking a step back and then throwing your shoulder into it so that the interiority bursts crudely into plain view? It’s a deft wielding, a fine manipulation, a delicate drawing forth of the insides.
Alice Adams came close with Zamora. But the stitching was too apparent. You could see the zipper going up the Doctor’s back, hidden under a clever fold of cloth, but there all the same. You can see how she put took him apart, looked at the pieces, and then put him back together. It’s a clever construction, but ultimately he feels more like a cunningly put together puzzle than a person.
Not here, not in Allende’s story. Rolf is human, and while perhaps it helps that there is a real Rolf, that this story is autobiographical, it’s still incredible that she was able to bring him to life on the page as she did. Look as hard as you can, there’s no zipper. There are no fine seamings to indicate where the pieces were locked together. And yet, and yet and yet! He’s broken down, broken down like any strong, complicated, compassionate man might be by a terrible accident, by being forced to witness such tragedy over the course of three days.
Ah! I am no longer angry. Now I am bemused, challenged. It’s like realizing that there are taller mountain peaks beyond your own particular valley. Either you swear to give up the mountaineering life, to cast down your pick and crampons and spend your life tending sheep, or you roll up your sleeves, squint up past the sun at the distant peaks, and begin to head into the rolling hills, determined to get there some day, to reach those dizzying heights and breath of that rarefied air.