Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Charles" (1948)

Read story by Shirley Jackson online.

SPOILER ALERT. "Charles" is a very short story with a twist ending in the O. Henry vein. I had it figured out on the first page, but I had read it before. I can't remember if it fooled me the first time. It might have. Wikipedia comments: "This story is a prime example of dramatic irony where many times the reader can figure out——" Ah ah ah, Wikipedia. You just might have given it away without even a spoiler alert. Between my figuring it out quickly, and Wikipedia giving it away just like that, there's probably no harm in discussing it candidly, but I'll be scrupulous just in case. It's right there online for you and it's very short. By the evidence of this, "The Lottery," and other stories by her, Shirley Jackson was often in the surprise ending business, which was very popular in short stories for much of the 20th century. Jackson's work has value beyond this entertainment aspect, and reasons can be glimpsed here, though this story is mostly focused on its surprise business. Jackson is really good at midcentury American suburbia with malevolent overtones. "Charles" turns on a young couple sending their first-born off to kindergarten and dealing with what comes of it. There are profound moments in terms of child development and the bemusement and wonder of the parents. At a length of only five printed pages, this story verges on being a "short short." I understand it gets hard making these distinctions—short short and short stories, novellas, novelettes, etc.—and maybe it's not even worth it. But they seem to have some shadings by size. A short short (three printed pages max and as short as two sentences) almost always has a twist or multiple twists. Otherwise we're in the realm of prose poetry and frankly I don't want to go there. "Charles" is long enough to establish a narrative sequence, even though it deliberately dances around a key plot point that is saved for a "reveal" (that new noun). It's not purely a stunt, as Jackson's crisp jokey rhythms and suburban detail are worth the quick ride—her characters can be real in surprising ways. Still, it's mainly a stunt, or at best occupying the form of a stunt. "The Lottery" is a better story, but mostly because it's longer and thus there is more of Jackson's writing. It's also a stunt. But both are also more than that.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

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