Francine Prose Short Fiction Analysis
Francine Prose is, above all, a professional writer—competent, skilled, intelligent, and knowledgeable about the various conventions of the prose fictions and articles she writes. However, her stories, for all their surface flash and verbal cleverness, are often highly formal exercises that seldom, to quote her own character Landau in “Guided Tours of Hell,” “achieve that transcendental state” that lifts writer and reader above the realm of the ordinary world.
Prose is frequently admired for her domestic whimsy, her adroitness at satire, her offbeat and acerbic humor, and her gifts of irony and observation. However, her fictions are usually formal, well-made stories, self-consciously literary, and thus highly predictable and pat. Her use of the analogies to writer Franz Kafka in “Guided Tours of Hell,” for example, are so carefully woven throughout the story that they get in the way of any genuine anguish that might be experienced by her characters. Just as Landau, the competent but dispassionate and disengaged writer of this story knows he is not Kafka, Francine Prose is always Landau, for her stories are mostly professional products, rather than passionate explorations.
Although simple, everyday disorders form the background of this story, the single disruption of the everyday on which it focuses is uncommon and threatening. The story centers on the fears of Gilda, a housewife and mother of four, when her husband Nathan, a photographer and professor, brings home a glamorous and adventuresome female war photographer named Phoebe Morrow. The contrast between Gilda’s own prosy home life and Phoebe’s exciting life on the road and on the battlefield establishes the story’s central conflict and interest. Prose is her usual clever self in the story, establishing Gilda’s domesticity and fears by having her try to imagine that Phoebe probably looks like aviator Amelia Earhart but instead thinking of her as the cartoon character Snoopy, the Red Baron. Gilda’s response is complicated by her knowledge that her husband, who has made his own reputation as a photographer of “everyday disorder,” envies Phoebe.
While Phoebe has gone on commando raids with Sandinista guerillas, Gilda’s main claim to fame seems to be the homemade mushroom soup she has prepared for dinner. The evening comes to a comic/pathetic climax when Gilda overhears Phoebe telling a group of admiring students a story about being wounded in a plane crash. She tells them she was cared for by a beautiful Israeli nurse who looked like Rita Hayworth and who made her homemade mushroom soup. Phoebe says she became a kind of junkie for the soup and that the nurse brought her her favorite food, linguine with steamed mussels. This is a revelation Gilda is not sure how to handle, as earlier she had told Phoebe that she became a kind of junkie for being pregnant and that her favorite food is linguine with steamed mussels. The story ends with...
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