Thursday, August 10, 2017

"The Story of a Scar" (1973)

Story by James Alan McPherson not available online.

This story by James Alan McPherson has a bit of a tricky setup in its frame. Told first-person and set in a doctor's waiting room, the story's narrator is the listener more than the teller. The other person in the waiting room is a woman with a dramatic scar across her face. Somewhat rudely, because the two are strangers, the narrator asks her how she got it. In fact, he asks her a couple of times before she responds. Then she unloads it on him, brooking no interruption. It's a story that pulls against expectations, a romantic dispute between two men with her in the middle. It's a little horrifying but never less than interesting. Many obvious expectations are thwarted along the way. I liked this story—it flies once the narrative momentum sets in, which is early. But it has elements that confuse me. I don't know what to make of the narrator. By story's end his intention seems to be to take advantage of her sexually. She recognizes something creepy in him. "Black guys like you with them funny eyeglasses are a real trip," she says early. "You got to know everything. You sit in corners and watch people." Her sense of him seems confirmed at the end, after her story is finished. The violence and abuse in her story is harrowing. The narrator momentarily sounds like he wants to get away from her as fast as he can. But then: "And then I remembered the most important question, without which the entire exchange would have been wasted. I turned to the woman, now drawn together in the red plastic chair, as if struggling to sleep in a cold bed. 'Sister,' I said, careful to maintain a casual air. 'Sister ... what is your name?'" This finish is the least ambiguous evidence there's something off about him, but it's not isolated. His abrupt focus on the scar is almost insolent, as well as his own story that he is at the clinic to treat a broken nose caused by an accident during sex—insolent and unsettling. He gives away these things about himself, but not much about what he wants, or expects to get. Maybe she's right and he wants to sit in corners and know everything. Whatever it is he takes it as understood. But it's not, exactly. And that leaves me feeling somehow not comfortable with where we are left. I understand that makes this an effective story—and it is, in more ways than one—but it left me with more anxiety than I bargained for. It just doesn't turn out any specific way. It leaves you hanging.

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

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