(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The stories in each of Charles Baxter’s three collections are internally linked by theme, image, and motif. The title story in each collection suggests thematic ties to other stories in the collection. As a musician composes a symphony, building variations around an initial theme, Baxter works and reworks connecting ideas in multiple ways. While some stories seem more closely linked than others, taken as a whole, each collection says something different about the human experience.

For example, in Harmony of the World, a number of stories concern music, musicians, or artists. Thematically, Baxter plays with notions of harmony and discord and the way these notions play out in human relationships. Likewise, in A Relative Stranger, Baxter explores both the relatedness of strangers and the strangeness of relatives. In these stories he seems to tell the reader that no matter how different or far apart people are, they are nonetheless connected. Conversely, he also demonstrates in these stories that no matter how closely related people may be, they still have to live their lives alone in their skins. Finally, in Believers, an especially fine collection, Baxter meditates on the relationship between belief and truth. He demonstrates in these stories both how belief can change the perception of truth and how truth can impact belief.

Baxter accomplishes these sophisticated linkages through the invention of characters who are both varied and individual, rich and self-contradictory. Baxter develops these characters by offering snapshots of their lives, brief still shots revealing where each is located in the moment of the story. Like real people, they are not all one way or another; rather, they are a complicated stew of thoroughly human qualities.

Harmony of the World

Baxter’s first collection of short stories, published in 1984, met with strong and favorable reviews. The title of the collection is ironic; the ten stories focus not on harmony but on discord and tricks of fate. The characters in the stories (many of them musicians, a further irony) fail to establish harmonious relationships with other people. Moreover, they do not realize that they are out of harmony with themselves and the culture. Although often mediocre in talent and intellect, they demand perfection in others, as if the harmony they seek can be found outside themselves. The title “Harmony of the World,” for instance, is taken from an opera by composer Paul Hindemith, an opera that music critics generally consider a failure. Likewise, the main character is a music reviewer, a failed concert pianist who has settled for passing judgment on the music of others rather than on creating music himself. He breaks off a relationship with a singer because she, too, is mediocre. The story, included in The Best American Short Stories 1982, reveals Baxter’s strong sense of character, dialogue, and detail.

A Relative Stranger

Critics often cite “Fensted’s Mother” as one of Baxter’s best stories. It first...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)