Donald Barthelme, “The School”

 

This is my second entry in the “2019 Deal Me In Short Story Challenge” hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This week, I drew a 5 of Clubs, which took me to Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” originally published in 1975.  I found the story in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.

Donald Barthelme (pictured above), who lived from 1931-1989, was known for writing short stories that are “surreal” or “postmodern” or “experimental.”  These are all fancy ways of saying his stories don’t make a lot of sense.  (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

“The School” is narrated by a teacher named Edgar.  He starts the story by explaining how his 30 students all planted orange trees as part of their education.  All of the trees died.  Then we learned that the children’s snakes all died as well. So did the herb gardens they worked on, as did the tropical fish.  The puppy, too, died, as did the Korean orphan, two children, and one child’s father.

Eventually, the children asked the teacher what happened to  all of these dead creatures? Where did they go?  The teacher said nobody knew.

And then the children asked “is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life.  Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.”  (310)

In recompense, the children wanted the teacher to make love with the teaching assistant, Helen, in front of them.  They want to know how lovemaking is done.

The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but he kissed Helen a few times on the brow.  Then a gerbil knocked on the door and walked into the class, after which “The children cheered wildly.”

That’s how the story ends.

I would say this story is a postmodern experiment in surrealism.   Or maybe a surreal experiment in postmodernism.  In other words, I really don’t know what it means.  I would guess it is a meditation on the inevitable cycle of life, death, lovemaking, and gerbils.  But mostly death.  So you might as well make love with the teaching assistant.

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Boadicea and Her Daughters

I am posting this photo for Skywatch Friday, a site where bloggers are invited to post pictures that include the sky.  The sculpture in this photo depicts Boadicea (aka Boudica) and Her Daughters.  Boudica was the queen of a Celtic tribe during the period of the Roman invasions.  She led an uprising of her tribe against the Romans in around 60 A.D.  Her people lost, but they gave the Romans a good fight.

This sculpture is by Thomas Thornycroft, who worked on it from 1856-1883.  It is located in London on Westminster bridge, facing Big Ben.

Let’s give three cheers for Boudica for taking on the Romans!

 

What Pegman Saw in Mumbai

This week’s edition of “What Pegman Saw” takes place in Mumbai, India.  The challenge is to write a story of up to 150 words based on the photo.

*****

Vihaan smiled as he walked through the former park.  He had succeeded—again—in winning a lucrative contract on his terms, leaving his competitors reeling.  Even after all these years, Vihaan still felt a thrill whenever he closed a deal.

Vihaan remembered bringing his son Avi to this park when he was little.  The landscape had been a lush green back then.  Now, it was a desolate patch of parched earth with decaying carcasses of the old rides littering the grounds.

They been poor back then, but those days are gone.  His wife Tanvi loved their luxurious home. She chose not to ask how he was able to do so well when everyone else was struggling.

Avi was more inquisitive, unfortunately.   After discovering the source of Vihaan’s wealth, Avi left home and never spoke to him again.

It was just a phase, Vihaan thought.  He’ll come back.  Surely, he’ll return.

(150 words)

Year of Shakespeare 2019

 

I signed up to join the 2019 Year of Shakespeare challenge with Hibernatorslibrary.  The goal is to read one comedy in January-April, one history in May-August, and one tragedy in September-December.

I plan to start with Taming of the Shrew.

Feel free to join me!

 

Deal Me In! Amy Silverberg, Suburbia!

I signed up for Jay at bibliophilica’s #DealMeIn2019 challenge.  The goal is to read 52 short stories this year.  The stories are chosen by drawing a random playing card.

This week, I chose the 4 of Diamonds.

The story is “Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg, found in Best American Short stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay.

“Suburbia!” is (for lack of a better word) an odd story.  It begins when the narrator is fifteen, and her father says “I bet you’ll leave here at eighteen and you’ll never come back. . . not once” (251).  The narrator agrees to the bet.  A week after her 18th birthday, her father takes the daughter to the train station and says goodbye to her forever.  (It did not seem that the daughter had been consulted about this trip.) The daughter does OK.  She gets a job as a waitress, makes some friends, and takes a few classes.  But eventually, she misses her family and wants to see them again, so she goes home unannounced.

She is surprised to find that the house she grew up in is tiny–smaller than a toaster.  She crouches down on her knees in order to talk to her parents.  They are embarrassed that she is seeing them like this, but otherwise they are doing fine.

The last line of the story is this:  “I thought this was a funny thing, the way the past and the future could both shrink down to a manageable size, like a pill to be swallowed, or the head of a match” (261).

I believe Silverberg is using the miniature house as a symbol.  When we are children, our families and our homes seem huge, all-encompassing.  After we grow up and look back on our homes, our families may seem in some way diminished.  One can understand why the narrator’s father would not want her to see them through the lens of her adult eyes.

I’m not sure what I think of this story.  I haven’t yet fully “digested” it.  In the back of the anthology, Silverberg included some notes on why she wrote the story.  I will quote part of what she wrote:

  “I’d just read the short story ‘The Paperhanger’ by William Gay and admire the mystery of it, how it seemed to go confidently into an unknown world, a world that felt a little surreal and a little absurd. . . .I was also in a workshop taught by Aimee Bender, and while I hadn’t set out to write anything with a magical realism element, I’m sure her stories. . . rubbed off on me–or if not the stories, then at least the courage or freedom to go confidently into that so called unknown world.”

I do like that idea of writers having the freedom to go confidently wherever they want to go.

*****
Have you read this story or anything else by Amy Silverberg?  Let me know what you think!

 

What Pegman Saw on St. Helena Island

“What Pegman Saw” is a weekly writing challenge based on the photo(s) of a specific location.  The story needs to contain no more than 150 words.  This week’s location is St. Helena Island.

 

Sixty-nine, seventy.  Madison counted the steps of this interminable volcano staircase.  She had been on St. Helena Island for seven days, and she was bored to tears.

Eighty-five. The island’s website boasted that there were many activities for visitors: walking, hiking, and rambling.  Did those idiots not realize these are all synonyms?

It was Nick’s fault.   “Come with me to this island paradise,” he had said.  “You can relax while I work.”

They had just started dating when he received the funding for his research on St. Helena.  Madison did not understand Nick’s work—something about biodiversity–but she liked the idea of sunning herself on pristine, white beaches. Instead, she was stuck on a pile of black rocks that looked like hand-me-downs from Mars.

One hundred twenty-four.  She reached the top.  She was breathless, but she could see clearly.  It was over with Nick.

*****

Word count: 146

Six Degrees of Separation: “French Lieutenant’s Woman” to “Rebecca”

 

Kate of booksaremyfavouriteandbest hosts a monthly meme called “6 Degrees of Separation.”   She writes, “On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.”

This month, the starting book is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.  I haven’t read this book but I did see the movie adaptation, which starred Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep also starred in The Hours, an adaptation of the novel by Michael Cunningham.  The Hours explores one day in the lives of three women.  One of these women is Virginia Woolf, who is writing the novel Mrs. Dalloway, the novel on which The Hours is based.

The main character of Mrs. Dalloway is a woman named Clarissa.  The novel also features a character named Septimus, a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock. Septimus’s doctor plans to send him to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Veterans suffering from mental illnesses stemming from World War I are also featured in Regeneration by Pat Barker.  Rivers, the doctor, is portrayed as a complex and sympathetic character.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel with a much more critical portrayal of a mental asylum.  The movie version of Cuckoo’s Nest starred Jack Nicolson.

Nicholson also starred in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.  That novel scared the bejesus out of me when I read it back in the 1970s.

Another book which scared me when I was younger is Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

I travelled from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Rebecca.  They seem like good companion novels to me.  Both feature lonely young women, and both are set on the southern coast of England.


Now it’s your turn to try!  Post a link to your Six Degrees of Separation in the comments section.