Monday, December 2, 2013

The Short Story Review

A beautifully written short story is one of the great pleasures of literature. It can have the sudden impact of a thunderclap. Whether it's Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" or Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," a short story can create a completely realized, fully populated world in just a few pages. For some reason, short works are rarely reviewed on their own. Why not? Individual paintings or sculptures often inspire reviews, and of course, movies are reviewed as single entities, not as a connecting component to a writer or director's overall body of work.

This is our attempt to right a small wrong. We'll be reviewing short stories published in a variety of print and online publications, and we thought we'd start with the current story in The New Yorker.

Romesh Gunesekera's "Roadkill"

By Lars Trodson

Romesh Gunesekera
The metaphor in the beginning of the story is all wrong. The name Kilinochchi does not conjure up images of “a Clint Eastwood character striding in and notching the stock of his rifle with yet another senseless killing.” Kilinochchi sounds nothing like a town in the American west of the 19th century. It is, rather, the setting of Romesh Gunesekera’s short story, “Roadkill,” which appears in the Dec. 2 issue of The New Yorker. It doesn't help that Gunesekera’s attempt at continuing the western-fable terminology, “guns blazing” and “showdown” also appears lazy and off-key.

The plot of the story is simple: an unnamed taxi driver brings a couple into Kilinochchi, the site of former rebel trouble that now may be on its way back to stability, although that's not a given. The couple, the Arunachalams, make their way up their room at the Spice Garden Inn, and the tax driver sits alone at the hotel restaurant and eats a very poor meal that reminds him that prosperity has not fully emerged in Kilinochchi. He encounters the hotel manager, a Miss Saraswati, who is enigmatic and intriguing — to both the taxi driver and the reader.

This is a slight story; a sketch, really. The encounter between the driver and the young woman comprises the vignette. It seems as though Gunesekera wants the turbulent Sri Lankan past to seep into the story to give it heft, but if the lingering air of violence and bloodletting adds some dimension to the proceedings, it's not enough to make a strong impression.

The modern hotel does not seem capable of staving off death. Miss Saraswati kills a rat with an expertly thrown bottle of beer, which astonishes the taxi driver — even impresses him — but it also leads to some comical dialogue straight out of Hemingway:

“Please eat.”

I pushed my plate away.

“What? No appetite now? Don’t worry. It’s dead, no?”

“I ate.”

“They are all over the town, but we do not allow them here. I believe it is not good for guests to see.”

“Yes, true. Guests can get upset very easily.”

“Usually the dogs keep the rats away.”

“Dogs are good. Yes.”

Only this is Hemingway straight out of “Across the River and Into the Trees.” The dead rodent is meant to convey a message to the reader, as is the title of the story itself, but the imagery doesn't enlighten the reader to any meaningful degree.

Gunesekera also gives us mixed messages about the mysterious Miss Saraswati. “She had the severe look that some women have when they think their time is running out.” But she also seems “tightly strung, like one of those ballerinas performing with the Bolshoi on TV” These two images which come right after one another, blurs the image of the woman rather than sharpening it.

In the middle of this brief tale, Gunesekera bluntly announces not just his purpose but perhaps what he hopes the reader will feel about the world he is creating: “I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it’s like to drive on the other side of the road.”

The problem is that the people in this story don’t act differently than other people. Mrs. Arunachalam is pregnant and doesn’t want to be hot riding in the car. That seems pretty consistent with how anyone would act. Miss Saraswati may have been a victim of war, she may have even been a combatant, but she is little more than a femme fatale with powder burns on her trigger finger.

And Gunesekera’s undermines his own theme that we should seek knowledge about other people by his attempt at a meaningful finish to his story. “I wanted to know about her,” Gunesekera writes, but the woman tells him not to ask about families that have gone through a war. “It is best not to ask about the past,” she says. And then Gunesekera writes, in the voice of the driver, “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we really know what happened? And if we don’t know, surely it will be repeated? At any rate, we should not let war or half-baked political decrees pervert our native habits of curiousity and easy engagement.”

Fine, but at the end of the story, when the driver sees Miss Saraswati before he leaves the hotel with his passengers, he looks for some hint of emotion in her face. But there is none. It is a blank. His last lines suddenly contradict his earlier quest for knowledge, and it leaves the reader unfulfilled: “I wished for a moment that I knew what she was thinking, and then I was glad I didn’t. There comes a point when you don’t want to know.”

It's too pat; it doesn't really mean anything. For a short story to succeed, it has to be tighter and more completely realized than the little world that Gunesekera attempts in "Roadkill."