Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The problem with epiphanies and the sense of an ending
Wasn't going to post on Anne Enright's short fiction, Solstice, in current New Yorker because I found it such a nothing piece of writing but I've been reading a few different magazines over the past few days and, having finished David Szalay's story in current Harper's, Dona Nobis Pacem, I've been wondering if there's a theme or trend here: 2 stories that build anticipation, at least to a degree, and then amount to nothing. This may be the postmodern version of the Joycean epiphany: Ever since Joyce developed the device of the epiphany, the story ending at a soft, quiet, interior moment of insight and comprehension (rather than a narrative conclusion, typical of short stories up to the early 20th century), writer's have pushed the limit on what constitutes an epiphany: a rainbow in the sky? A gaze out over the ocean? There has been no more extensively abused literary device, I'm afraid (particularly by mfa students). But writers today may be pushing epiphany abuse even farther - established writers, for that matter. Enright and Szalay are both Man Booker winners or finalists and their fiction is in the most prestigious of American publications; have you read their stories? Enright's is about a man working in an office in Dublin, leaves work a little early on the even of the winter solstice, almost drifts off while driving in rush hour, gets home, wife has prepared a "rustled together" dinner, slight awkwardness w/ teen daughter and with younger son, squabble with wife, next morning chats w/ young son who climbs into bed w/ him and they await the precise moment of the solstice - that's it. Is the point that from the darkest hour things can only get brighter, i.e., better? How juvenile. Then we get Szalay's story, which begins w/ a quote from Plato in which Socrates says he's much happier now that he no longer has a sex drive, in old age. These story is narrated by a 62-year-old professor, divorced 10 years, who has taken several "holidays" with a widowed colleague; the story is addressed to her in 2nd person. We learn that they have traveled as friends, not lovers, but one night they share a double bed, which gets him thinking (obviously) about having sex w/ her. Over the course of their travels that summer (fall?) in Turkey and Greece the possibility of sex with her dominates his mind; but he doesn't say anything to her, nor she to him, about these thoughts. Why? For fear of ending their friendship? He doesn't say. We feel pretty sure this is building toward some moment of crisis - but at the end, they visit some ruins, an old monastery (he looks suspiciously at a young priest - thinking about sexual repression? devotion?, again no insight) and then they move on in their travels. In effect, the story goes absolutely no where, and if there is an epiphany I guess it's contained in the epigraph. God, I'm no saying that every story needs on O.Henry surprise ending, not that every story is going to match the snow falling across Ireland - but, writers, you owe your readers, who've gone w/ you on your journey, some sense of an ending.