I’ve started to read Dorothy Parker’s short stories and what sharp, bitter little kernels they’re turning out to be. I suppose I had expected cynicism and a highly developed sense of human contrariness, but what I didn’t bargain for was the excellent economy of Parker’s prose. She’s one of those writers who manage to convey in a line what a lesser verbal draftsman would dilute across a page, and I’ve particularly enjoyed her acidic portraits of relationships, be they within families or between lovers. One story I was reading this morning made a lasting impression on me. It is called ‘The Wonderful Old Gentleman’ and the action takes place in a genteel parlour while two sisters, one with her husband, wait for their father to die. In concise and powerful strokes, rather like lashes of a whip, Parker reveals the profound inequalities that structure this particular family. The husband and wife who have taken the ageing father in, live in a state of polite bourgeois poverty, for which they compensate with an excess of slightly sentimental goodness. The wife’s sister has, by contrast, made herself a good marriage and is clearly the type of person to organise all of life’s wayward forces towards her own betterment. She is firmly in control over the writing of the family history (history being a tale told by the victors) and whilst they wait for death the conversation attempts to iron out the wrinkles in the father’s decline, memorialising him in fixed images of indomitable spirit and courage before he is even cold. Naturally Parker is clever enough to show us that this fine old gentleman was a bad-tempered, fussy, demanding, selfish sourpuss, that Allie and Lewis Bain who took him in have had to make unreasonable concessions, at great personal expense, to his fitful temper, and that Hattie Whittaker, the sister, hasn’t an ethical bone in her body.
What intrigued me, however, was the opening of the story in which the Bain’s living room is intricately described as ‘a small but admirably complete museum of objects suggesting strain, discomfort or the tomb.’ The details Parker chooses to present us with include the wallpaper which, ‘once a dashing affair of a darker tone splashed with twinkling gold, had faded into lines and smears that resolved themselves, before the eyes of the sensitive, into hordes of battered heads and tortured profiles, some eyeless, some with clotted gashes for mouths’; the furniture that ‘was dark and cumbersome and subject to painful creakings – sudden, sharp creaks that seemed to be wrung from its brave silence only when it could bear no more’; and ornaments, which, even when they appear initially harmless like ‘a gaily colored figure of a curly-headed peasant boy, ingeniously made so that he sat on the shelf and dangled a leg over’, turn out to have darker intent: ‘He was in the eternal act of removing a thorn from his chubby foot, his round face realistically wrinkled with the cruel pain.’ It’s a brilliant description in which all the human suffering compacted into this sorry, struggling family finds visual expression. The setting in which the conversation takes place, becomes the symbolic repository for the cruelty, distress and pain which remain unspoken within it.
For some reason this story reminded me of one by Raymond Carver. Now, I haven’t read much American literature, but when I worked in the bookshop, Carver was God, and it was pretty much part of the conditions of employment to have read him. Some of his stories I really liked, some I wasn’t so keen on. The one that sprung to mind was called ‘Neighbors’ and it was a deceptively simple little vignette about one couple, the Millers, who are called upon to look after the apartment of their neighbours, the Stones, whilst the latter are on holiday. There is an implicit envy in the Miller’s appraisal of the Stone’s lifestyle, a vague sense that they have not let life pass them by, but rather found ways to live it to a fuller, more satisfying degree. As Bill and Arlene Miller take turns to feed the cat and water the plants, so they find themselves, separately, simultaneously and secretly, picking around the Stone’s private possessions, checking out the medicine cabinet and the refrigerator, eventually trying on their clothes, sleeping in their bed. The experience revitalises their sex life and seems to open new horizons to them, encapsulated in the fantasy that the Stones might never return from vacation. The story ends when they realise that they have mistakenly locked themselves out of the apartment; ‘They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.’
I really wasn’t sure why one story had called up the other in my mind. So I thought about this for a while and came to the conclusion that they both exemplify the kind of voyeuristic relationship to some other life that the short story so often provides. Even though short stories don’t have the space for extraneous detail, they often linger over the description of the furnishings and fittings of the lives they describe, knowing that these objects are far from banal, but in fact contain all we need to know about the people who possess them. Both stories present a slice taken from domestic life, a slice whose slightness and brevity is in no way detrimental to the strength of the impact the protagonists make on the reader. It’s the everyday miracle of the successful short story to present the entirety of a stranger’s life to us over the course of a conversation or in the snapshot of time in which they betray their social faces. And rather like the Stones and the Millers, there is a sharp pleasure to be had in being granted access to another’s private sanctum, to spy on the way someone else lives their unguarded life.
I’ll be returning to Dorothy Parker again when I’ve read some more of her work, but so far she’s turning out even better than I’d hoped.