Bette Pesetsky David Quammen - Essay

David Quammen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With their compactness, their flat tone, their arresting elisions and juxtapositions, Bette Pesetsky's "Stories Up to a Point" read like telegraphic dispatches from the battlefield of modern life. The telegrapher is in almost every case a woman, anonymously reflecting upon her failures and disappointments as wife, mother, lover, friend, urbanite. Generally these women sound shellshocked. But the messages are clear. They carry, some of them, important news from the front.

The news is all bad…. The only relief Miss Pesetsky offers, throughout her dispiriting reports on the state of human relations, are deft writing and flashes of hilarious pessimism. A testament to these strengths—her craftsmanship and her mordant humor—is that the volume is, against all odds, enjoyable.

This is still more surprising in that "Stories Up to a Point" is her first book…. [The stories] show a controlled originality, a distinctive and consistent vision. Ironically, the book's chief flaw is that very consistency of vision. In the weaker stories, the endless succession of injuries-numbly-adapted-to molds into a blur, and the mood of cool despair seems programmatic or facile. Yet even these few, which don't work well as whole stories, fail interestingly and contain at least touches that do work.

Of the rest, some are terrific. "The Person Who Held the Job Before You" is a small wry parable about the psychic toll of work in a dull office, compressing into four pages and a punch line much of what Joseph Heller pursued throughout "Something Happened." "Moe, Nat, and Yrd," about a self-confessed student of radio call-in shows and the people who make them possible, at first seems to promise only rambling and eccentric comedy, but then snaps closed at the end like a high quality strongbox. Both "Dyslexia" and "The Theory of Sets" are ingeniously constructed and emotionally potent, the sort of short story for other short-story writers to look at and envy.

Social disjunction, dislocation and discontinuity (especially as they afflict women) are the main themes of all these stories, and so the author's use of narrative disjunction, dislocation and discontinuity is apt; at its best her off-rhythm, quirky technique is impressive. (pp. 11, 34)

David Quammen, "Women in Crisis," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1982, pp. 11, 34.∗