Packages (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
Packages is the title of Richard Stern’s new, very slim, elegantly produced book of short stories. It is also the title of the most powerful story in the collection, and it provides the governing metaphor of the book.
The literal package—around which the story “Packages” revolves—is a silvery can containing the ashes of the narrator’s mother; the story begins as he picks up the package at the “funeral factory” which has handled the cremation. In a story which is mostly reverie and recollection, the principal action is the narrator’s disposal of the package: he strips off its label, rewraps it, covers it with newspaper in the trash, and covers the newspaper with “a plasticine sack of rinds and fishbones.” Later, he watches while the garbage collectors throw the can into the maw of their truck.
Thus the title, “Packages,” becomes a necessarily brutal metaphor, intended to force acknowledgment that people are merely packages, finally: packages of chemicals. “But this way is better than a slot in that Westchester mausoleum. Foolish, garish anteroom to no house. Egyptian stupidity.”
There is, however, another reading of the metaphor. After disposing of the package, the narrator lies down, listens to a “cello suite of Poppa Bach.” Overwhelmed, he reflects that vastness is accessible to him...
(The entire section is 1454 words.)
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