“Omelas, Bright-Towered by the Sea”

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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (and other short stories I’ve read recently)

In catching up (and I AM caught up now – hallelujah!) with my 2012 short story reading project, I’m reading stories faster than I am able to blog about them, so this post is a bit of a catch-up with just brief comments on the last six I’ve read.

Maybe the best of the group was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, a highly acclaimed science fiction writer.** The story tells the tale of the city of Omelas, where all the citizens enjoy a seemingly unadulterated happiness. Well, ALMOST all, I should say. The city has a dark secret to its happiness that the reader only discovers midway through the story. Largely allegorical, the tale asks the question of how much we would be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Apparently, most of the citizens are willing to accept the sacrifices their city has deemed necessary. Some are not, however and they are the titular “ones who walk away…” This story won the Hugo Award for The Best Science Fiction Short Story of 1974. Wikipedia has a list of nominees and winners – take a look and see how many you’re familiar with.

Another good one was “Cumberland Breakdown” by Joyce Carol Oates. This was another from her collection “I Am No One You Know,” from which I’ve read another story, “The Mutants,” as part of this year’s reading project. In this story, two children, Melora (13) and her older brother Tyrell (16), are coping with the loss of their father, a volunteer fireman who lost his life fighting a fire at the house of some “welfare people,” the Barndollars. Tyrell especially resents that the act of saving these poor, “probably drunk and smoking in bed,” people has taken away their father. With Melora tagging along, Tyrell contemplates revenge and stalks the Barndollars, meeting them in the final pages of the story, which did not end as I expected.

I also read a sad story by Katherine Mansfield titled “Marriage a la Mode.” Published in 1921, it deals with a man fighting a seemingly hopeless battle to prevent losing his wife to her new “Bohemian” friends and lifestyle. As a last ditch tactic, he writes her a traditional “love letter” which she reads to her friends(!) who enjoy a good laugh over it. She feels ashamed and resolves to write him back in kind, but her resolution is tested by the pull of her new friends.

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My recent reading also included two stories by James Joyce, both from “The Dubliners.” One, “The Boarding House,” didn’t do much for me, being the “standard fare” of the daughter of a boarding house owner being compromised by one of the boarders and the natural attendant consequences. The other was better. Titled “A Little Cloud,” it deals with a reunion of two friends who had grown up together but had, at the time of the story, been separated for quite awhile. One had gone off and “made a name for himself” while the other has settled into a traditional life. The traditional life friend feels some jealousy and envy of the one who went off to seek his fortune. This was kind of an analysis of the concept of “the grass is always greener” that I thought was very well done. I enjoyed neither of these stories as much as I did “The Dead.”

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I also read my second Henry James story of the year. Though I enjoyed it less than the other one (“The Middle Years”), “The Tree of Knowledge” was an interesting look at the concept of self-delusion and how we may support each other in our self-delusions. In a nutshell, it’s about a couple, the man being a professional – though certainly not brilliant – artist, who have a son who also wants to follow an artistic career path. Not too remarkable a situation until you throw in the old family friend, who “has always loved” the artists wife, and has carefully protected her from the knowledge of “the truth” about her husband’s lack of real talent. He finds he wants to protect the son from this truth too, leading to a cerebral story that may be a warning about the futility of getting tangled up in the lives of others.

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So, have any of the above stories – or authors – struck your fancy at some point in your reading life?  What did you think of them? Do you have any recommendations for  my future short story reading?

**Those who are not fans of the sci-fi genre may have heard her name in the 2007 movie – based upon the 2004 book – “The Jane Austen Book Club.” In the movie, ***SPOILER ALERT*** the only male (Grigg) in the book club is a sci-fi fan and recommends reading Le Guin to fellow member, Jocelyn, who’s a bit of a literary snob and thus above reading sci-fi even though Grigg explains that his recommendations are not the standard ray gun & robot sci-fi. She’s also blind to the fact that Grigg is clearly interested in her, but eventually reads them and is swept away, driving immediately over to his house and only realizing after she’s there that it’s five o’clock in the morning,so she waits in her car and falls asleep. He sees her when he’s leaving to go to work the next morning, and taps on her window… “I read these books!” she gushes, and they head inside and tear off each others clothes. So cliche. That happens to me all the time <cough cough> when I recommend books to women who look like Maria Bello and they actually read and like them. (below: the cast of “The Jane Austen Book Club” – that’s Jocelyn & Grigg on the right)

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“His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.”

James Joyce’s Short story “The Dead”

I read this story as part of my 2011 short story reading project (one story per week, 52 total for the year; I’m a little behind but have been catching up).  Like many of us, I find James Joyce somewhat tough going so it was not without some trepidation that I drew the Ace of Clubs from my random story selection generator – i.e. a standard deck of playing cards.   I checked the length and groaned a bit when I discovered it to be 38 pages. Ugh.  The story is from his collection, The Dubliners, published in 1914

****Warning: The following contains Spoilers****

This story took awhile to pick up speed – for me, at least. Most of the “action” takes place at a dinner party held by sisters Kate and Julia Morkan.  At the party we are introduced to many of the guests – and their shortcomings – (e.g. Freddy Malins, the man who drinks too much). We also learn that the ladies are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, their nephew.  From their anticipation, we assume Gabriel is a kind of rock that “holds things together” for the ladies at their parties.

If you’re somewhat introverted, like me, parties like the one described are often exercises in tedium and social discomfort.  In fact, reading the story was also a bit of an exercise for me early on.  Eventually, though, we learn that Gabriel too is of this ilk. Though able to successfully navigate the social obstacle course such parties present, it seems he too would “rather be somewhere else.”

When an acceptable time to leave finally arrives, he is more than ready, as he has begun to feel a rekindled passion for his wife: “She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her.” After they make their escape and journey back to their lodgings he “… pressed her arm closely to his side, and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from their home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.”

His flames of passion are doused, however, when he learns that the origin of her odd mood, which is at least partially the cause for his heightened passion, is that a song from the dance at the party has recalled to her mind the memory of her first love, a young man who essentially “died for love of her.” Gabriel is hurt since, “while he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

Gabriel takes the realization of her true feelings fairly well, all things considered, and becomes reflective on his life and their lives together, musing as he lays down beside her in bed that “One by one, they were all becoming shades.  Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

I liked the story. Although the first 75% or so was pretty tough going, the payoff of the last six pages or so was very well worth it.  Apparently, there is speculation in the world of literary criticism on whether “the dead” in the title of the story refers to the actual dead, or to the living, who are as Gabriel says, “becoming shades…” I’m not sure. What about you, have you read any James Joyce? Have you read this story? What do YOU think of him (or it)?

(Author James Joyce)