(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Clarence Major’s short fiction has attracted much less critical attention than his novels, and yet, as Doug Bolling has noted, “his short fiction is valuable in its own right and deserves wide reading and critical discussion.” Among other strengths, Major is capable of a range of fictional styles, from the conventional to the experimental. Nearly all of his fiction is marked by lyricism and a fascination with language, but even his most realistic short stories (like “My Mother and Mitch” and “Ten Pecan Pies”) tend to challenge readers. His antimimetic, experimental fiction, as Bolling argues,helps us to see that fiction created within an aesthetic of fluidity and denial of ‘closure’ and verbal freedom can generate an excitement and awareness of great value; that the rigidities of plot, characterization, and illusioned depth can be softened and, finally, dropped in favor of new and valid rhythms.

Jerome Klinkowitz has written that the central achievement of Major’s careerhas been to show just how concretely we live within the imagination—how our lives are shaped by language and how by a simple act of self-awareness we can seize control of the world and reshape it to our liking and benefit.

Fun and Games

Clarence Major’s short-story collection Fun and Games was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Critics Award in 1990. While the volume represents Major’s short fiction through the 1980’s, it is a good barometer of his continuing fictional interests and forms. The sixteen stories in the volume are divided into five parts: Section 1 contains three stories (including the realistic “My Mother and Mitch” and “Ten Pecan Pies”), section 2 also has three shorter and more surreal stories, section 3 contains six stories, section 4 has three, and section 5 comprises “Mobile Axis: A Triptych,” three interconnected short fictions. While Major is capable of one form of social realism (as in “Letters”), he more regularly leans toward a staccato, fragmentary prose fiction in which the links are missing among characters and incidents (“The Horror” and the title story). “The Exchange,” for example is a fairly realistic, even comic story about a faculty exchange gone horribly wrong. When the narrator and his wife arrive on the opposite coast to begin the year-long exchange, they find a dilapidated house. Worse, when they return to their own home at the end of the year, their exchangees have turned the house into a replica of their own—down to the moldy contents of the refrigerator. Likewise, the collection’s title story is a first-person narration about a man’s three or four girlfriends, who keep leaving him and returning. The story is comic and at the same an oblique commentary on transience and commitment in contemporary society. More common in Fun and Games, however, is “Mother Visiting,” a short, three-page story that violates most of the conventions of fictional verisimilitude. While the story touches upon a number of contemporary issues (notably sex and violence), its postmodernist style emphasizes the play of language over sense. Likewise in the short story “Virginia,” the dazzling use of language and image have replaced the demands of plot.

“My Mother and Mitch”

This story won the Pushcart Prize for fiction in 1989 and leads off the...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)