Sunday, September 18, 2016

"The Bystander" (1960)

Read story by Gina Berriault online.

Gina Berriault's story did not impress me much, though it has an arresting last image and lines. Published in 1960, its themes and preoccupations are done better elsewhere, and more generally done to death already. In fairness, this might have felt more groundbreaking, or original, in 1960. An impoverished father is trying to eke out sustenance and raise his son, who is the first-person narrator of this very short story. Early in the story the father snaps, assaults his girlfriend (offstage), and is subsequently hauled off to a mental hospital. Yes, a mental hospital. This suggests he is insane, which means the story could go anywhere. Fortunately, it settles on making him depressed and pathetic. That's still not much but it could have been worse. The story is old enough that I suspect these details are intended to be shocking and dramatic. But they are not, particularly, and a lack of concrete specificity about the events, or anything of interest beyond that they happened, makes the story come up a little short for me. I did find others on the internet praising Berriault's ability to write the first-person narration of a man, and though I've seen worse (usually when men attempt to write as women) I wasn't convinced by it. The dynamics of the father-son relationship seemed cautiously correct, emphasis on caution over correctness, which might explain the lack of detail—perhaps too risky for credibility to go there except in vague ways. I've come to my suspicions of mental illness in fiction by degrees. For a good deal of the 20th century, following Freud's big splash, it was reasonably useful. It felt modern, with its intimations of science and bureaucracy. And we know people do go crazy, whatever exactly that means, and it's dramatic to live through for everyone involved. Fitzgerald, Plath, and Salinger, among many others, have used it more or less to good effect. But at some point—I want to blame the various changes in the concept and treatment of mental illness from the '70s and '80s—it became more rather than less of a rote device. Want to write about random strange behavior? Put your main character out of his mind. Want to underline the pathos of someone's story? Consider housing them in a mental institution. Even better, make it clearly the wrong thing to do. At least Berriault hasn't made that mistake here. It's not clear the father doesn't warrant institutionalization. Certainly he is very depressed, and we know the assault happened. But he's such a maddeningly fuzzy character, as is his son, that it's hard to get any sense at all for who he or any of them are, let alone any reason to care. I'm willing to give Berriault some benefit of the doubt, because the story appears in good company in a good collection. But I think it's one of the lesser offerings.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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