Sunday, September 24, 2017

"My Oedipus Complex" (1950)

Story by Frank O'Connor not available online.

On Wikipedia they are selling this story as "perhaps [Frank O'Connor's] most popular." Published originally in the New Yorker, it bears the unmistakable tang of that magazine's midcentury time—witty, urbane, and often actually funny. It's a reminiscence by a man named Larry of his father's homecoming after serving in World War I. Here's some of that New Yorker tang now: "The war was the most peaceful period of my life." I'm not sure what my snarking is about exactly—one of the best traditions of the New Yorker is some of the greatest writing and writers of its times. And I was entertained by this story. It was just I kept feeling it could have been written by Ring Lardner, J.D. Salinger, or James Thurber. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a certain sameness to them was revealed here, with the dry distance and overweening wit. I don't otherwise know O'Connor at all, so perhaps I'm not being fair to him either. The story in practical terms is like an illustrative sketch of the Freudian term under consideration. The most peaceful time in Larry's life included rising early and finishing in bed with his mother, having drowsy conversations before breakfast. The reason his mother gives him for sleeping in separate beds and rooms at night is that it's healthier. Larry is thus understandably baffled by his father sleeping with his mother on his return, after a long absence during the war. Larry thinks it's selfish, and even worse, reckless, to sleep with her. He is endangering her. At one point in the story Larry announces to them both that he plans on marrying his mother when he grows up. He is even more confused when they react as if he's told a joke. This story doesn't just remind me generally of Ring Lardner, but even more specifically of a story by Lardner in this same collection edited by Robert Penn Warren. "Liberty Hall" is also carefully, perhaps even intricately, structured, even if the structure turns out to be largely in the form of a joke. The punchline part of "My Oedipus Complex" involves the arrival of a new brother for Larry, Sonny, and the effect it has on the marital bed Larry has long since quitted. An Oedipus complex cuts all different ways, as this story elegantly illustrates, with Larry and his father closing ranks as allies. It's almost touching really, and funny too.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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