Monday, April 18, 2016

Little Old Ladies: Introduction

Stories are filled with archetypes and stereotypes of characters, which first oral storytellers and then professional writers plugged into their works in almost formulaic fashion.  Sometimes this was deliberate, other times unconscious on the storyteller’s end.  But these types of characters in turn serve a role in forming the opinions and preconceptions of us, the readers.  For example, the stories of princesses who are fairest in the land create a subconscious ideal of blonde, blue-eyed beauty.  Character types aren’t always that simplistic. 

And NO, Downton Abbey is not based on a book, so I will not be discussing it.
I just really like Violet. Er, Lady Grantham.

Take the old women in fiction, for example.  Whether it’s the old hag, the wise woman, the helpless widow, or the overbearing matriarch, elderly women in fiction crop up more often than you might realize at first glance.  P.G. Wodehouse’s works are teeming with autocratic aunts, whom even the crotchety old uncles are afraid of.  It seems like Jane Austen has at least one form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in each of her novels.  Charles Dickens has Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, but then there’s Aunt Betsy Trotwood in David Copperfield whose abrasive character is actually heroic rather than scheming, controlling, or mad.  And then there’s Oscar Wilde’s Aunt Augusta from The Importance of Being Earnest….

What can we learn from these characters?  Has literature given us a sort of double-edged ageism, where older women are viewed as kindly grandmothers or conniving witches or authoritarian matriarchs...none of which teaches us to look on our elders as real, complex, flesh-and-blood persons?  Are these archetypes really negative—after all, they hardly put women in a positive light—or positive—because they do give these women power over the other characters and drive the plot?   In our post-modern world of feminism and gender roles in flux, are these characters informing our opinions, or holding us back?  And where exactly, if anywhere, does Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle fit in?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Long Reviews of Short Stories: Charles Yu's "Third Class Superhero"

With names like "401(k)" and "32.05864991%" and “Two-Player Infinitely Iterated Simultaneous Semi-cooperative Game with Spite and Reputation Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction,” it is a fair guess in just perusing the table of contents of this short story collection that is both quirky and probably written by a former science major or something.  And both inferences are accurate.

Though I’m not much of a short story fan, I was drawn to this colorful paperback’s cover and science-fiction-y title.  I was not disappointed with the content.  Short stories have a tendency for being minimalist, a bit ambiguous, and existential.  Again, I was not disappointed.   Some stories, like “Realism” are so bleak as to almost feel like a cliché of Bleakness.  What Yu does differently with his writing than most other contemporary storytellers is incorporating technobabble almost seamlessly into his world-building.    

Problems for Self-Study

“A and B are sliding down a frictionless inclined plane.  They are accelerating toward the inevitable.  Domesticity.  Some marriages are driven by love, some by gravity.”

To me, this is the most interesting and memorable short story in the collection.  Written in terms of a math class word problem, it’s about a logical man, A, and the romance, relationship, and eventual division from his more emotional wife, B.  For A, everything is theoretical and cerebral.  He does not live in a flesh-and-blood reality, but rather thinks in terms of formulae and hypotheticals.  For him, anything that can be worked out, even in the mind, is possible, and is reality.  It’s not a happy story.  But it is fascinating.