Thursday, November 03, 2016

"The Darling" (1990)

Read story by Scott Bradfield online.

Scott Bradfield's story is little more than 25 years old but already it feels a little dated, working from the fascination with serial killers then entering its glamour phase in popular culture. The operative comparison is probably Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho novel, which came the year after. It's likely enough neither writer was particularly aware of the other. That was the time when serial killer trading cards came along, recall. It was just in the air. On a more conscious level, Bradfield is looking to Chekhov, who also wrote a story called "The Darling," which is also about a woman whose husbands keep dying on her. In the Bradfield story, however, it's because she keeps killing them. Bradfield is often attempting to have things both ways. It's a comedy more than anything, indulging ridiculous plot developments, yet the star of the show, Dolores Starr by name, is also a victim of abuse and incest, and in fact her father is her first victim. All right, maybe, but when Dolores meets and falls in love with another serial killer (they pull guns on one another simultaneously and it's true love, at least for awhile) you know you're in absurdist territory. And the problem with absurdist territory is that it means anything can happen, and thus nothing has significance. It's all just too easy. Bradfield's language is urbane and vaguely mocking. It's fun to read because he flatters you that you're in on the joke. But it's not a very good joke. As literary exercise it's impressive enough. I didn't know the Chekhov reference, and that story might have the effect of deepening this one, adding resonance. Nabokov would appear to be another obvious source. In the first paragraph, the third-person narrator plays with Dolores's name the way Humbert Humbert plays with Lolita's in that novel, and Lolita's name is also Dolores. So we have a smart and witty writer having some fun, and in fact, Bradfield is among the first to get to this kind of thing. So props to him. He may even deserve more credit than I can say. At this juncture, however, what he deserves credit for is something we're all a little tired of (and have been since approximately Oliver Stone's 1994 movie Natural Born Killers). The story is hampered by other small problems—it's distracting that the rare serial killer who is a woman is the main character, making it even harder to believe, and then there's the enduring problem of one gender writing from the other's point of view. It doesn't tend to go well. Dolores gets away with everything until it is convenient to the story for her to be captured, imprisoned, and become a celebrity. Points for prescience in popular culture trends. Docked for not including zombies.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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