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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Unreliable narrators, and why Sherwood Anderson is still worth reading

Sherwood Anderson is another one of the early 20th-century American writers once very much in vogue but now thought of (and read) only seldom - though old friend Charles Baxter did edited a great collection of Anderson stories a few years ago, including some previously unpublished, that brought some new and deserved attention to Anderson's work. He was once grouped among Hemingway and Fitzgerald as a pre-eminent American story writer of the first half of the 20th century, mostly based on his groundbreaking Winesburg, Ohio, the forerunner of about a million collections of "linked stories," the staple of all graduate writing programs. Moore and Pitlar include an Anderson story, as one of 3 stories representing the 1920s, in their collection 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories - and it's one of his lesser-known, or at least not part of Winesburg: "Brothers" - a strange, mysterious piece that anticipates some of the motifs that became much more common later in the century: unreliable narrators, multiple story lines center on one moment of conflict of crisis. Simply, this story is narrated by a man who lives in the hills about 20 miles from Chicago; we know little to nothing about the narrator. Story begins and ends during an October rainstorm; the narrator tells how he walked in the fog the day before and crossed paths w/ a neighbor who lives alone w/ his little dog and is generally considered "insane" - his mania or delusion is that the believes (or tells others anyway) that he is related to various people who come up in the news (the Chicago papers are read in this rural suburb). The latest example concerns a murder: narrator recounts (this constitutes 90 % of the story) a lurid tale of a bicycle-shop foreman who stabs his wife to death (he had developed a romantic crush, unrequited, on an office secretary), confesses when caught. The "insane" man tells the narrator that he is the killer's brother - totally not true, as we are aware. In telling this tale, the "insane" man becomes so wrought that he squeezes his dog - probably to death. The next day, the narrator sees the insane man walking in the rain, alone. So we begin to wonder: what is truth and what is delusion? Who are these 2 lonely men? 3 if you count the murderer? What parts of the narrative are real and accurate - even the tale of the murder - it seems to have info that would not and could not have been in the newspaper accounts of the day. The story also anticipates the way news - far more sensation and overwhelming today than a century ago - permeates our lives, consciousness, conversation, even dreams. Is the "insane" man any more delusional than the writer, who makes up and imagines these lurid tales? If the author has a role in this story - which one is he?

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