Ever since the 1920’s, commentators on the short-story form have claimed that it, more than the novel, is suited to represent the fractured nature and frantic pace of modern life. In this view, the novel offers a coherent vision, a structured worldreal, imagined, or fantasticinto which a reader can settle and wander with some sense of familiarity and comfort. The short story, by contrast, offers fragments, glimpses, snapshotsoften, as Frank O’Connor claimed, of those “lonely voices” on the fringes of society. Furthermore, practitioners of the short story frequently note that a reader’s involvement in a short story must be active and contributory. Unlike novels, in which much can be spelled out, short stories suggest, hint, and sometimes even feint, rather than explicitly telling. To put it another way, readers must fill in the blanks, make connections, and draw inferences in order to supply or perhaps even guess at “the meaning” of the text.
These qualities are especially evident in many contemporary short stories, particularly those collected in Catherine Brady’s The Mechanics of Falling, and Other Stories. Plot has long since disappeared from the literary short story, replaced by structures based on repeated images or motifs, verbal echoes or reflecting incidents, or subtle repetitions of ideas or gestures. In Brady’s collection, details are often presented with apparent randomness, as though they were scattered pieces of a puzzle waiting to be assembled into a meaningful picture. Characters are similarly presented, through bits and pieces of information, so that they slowly emerge out of the shadows into the light. Quotation marks are not used, so the lines between direct and indirect speech, between a character’s thoughts and the narrator’s observations, are blurred. These narrative techniques encourage close reading, careful attention to every detail, and a willingness to suspend the desire for a transparent “meaning.”
The opening story of the collection, “Looking for a Female Tenet,” uses a pun to set the tone and direction for the collection. It features two female Stanford students who have taken summer jobs as waitresses at a third-rate “resort” in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Their accommodations are shabby, their pay is inadequate, and the customers are cheap. Their only other female companion is the regular waitress, Ginny, who pins up an advertisement for a female “tenet,” mispelling “tenant.” Ginny’s malapropism points readers in the direction of the story’s point. Jules hails from an upper-middle-class home; she is sexually confident and experienced but not a good student. Mary Lee has escaped for the summer from a crowded home ruled by an angry and disappointed father, who is inclined to strike his children for real or imagined infractions. She is a straight-A student but inexperienced and lacking confidence.
The girls’ tedious and lonely lives are somewhat relieved by a band hired by the lodge. Jules takes up with Colin, the band’s lead singer, sharing sex and joints of marijuana. He has little to teach her except how not to shiver when he places ice cubes on her stomach. Mary Lee becomes friends with Owen, the only African American member of the band and the only one who is married. He encourages her reading, teaches her to sew a hem, and offers her experienced advice. The contrast between the two young women grows as the story progresses. Jules becomes increasingly daring, emboldened in part by marijuana but also operating from a more stable economic basis than is Mary Lee, who desperately needs to make enough money to pay for her senior year. Carelessness and bravado lead Jules first to antagonize, then to go off with, a couple of male customers, who drag her into the woods and attempt to rape her. She is saved by Mary Lee’s intervention.
Shaken by the near rape and injured when one of the men punches her in the face, Jules is attended not by Colin but by Owen, who presses ice to her cheek. Owen’s anger at Jules’s stupidity rubs off on Mary Lee, but Owen insists that Mary Lee has something to learn from the experience. “Owen turned to Mary Lee and jabbed a finger at her. You! You stay smart! She didn’t say no. She didn’t say, I don’t want to.” Whether Mary Lee will find a female tenet remains unresolved, as does the question of what a “female tenet” might be and how a young woman can learn to believe it or rely on it.
Similar questions haunt Judith of “The Dazzling World.” Traumatized by nearly dying in a suicidal automobile crash engineered by a neurotic boyfriend, she cannot decide how or whether to continue her four-year relationship with Cameron, an unsuccessful actor. When they plan to move in together, Judith forgets to bring the check that was to be the deposit on their joint apartment. It is unclear whether this was an honest mistake or an intentional way to avoid making the commitment. Judith takes a vacation to Guatemala to visit her sister’s archaeological dig, but her time there does nothing to help Judith make up her mind about Cam. His daring and eagerness seem only to increase her uncertainty.
“Slender Little Thing” employs an unusual narrative device,...
(The entire section is 2142 words.)