Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224
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 Gilda’s realization that Phoebe is not someone to be envied, for there is some essential component of selfhood missing in her, which she tries to patch “with borrowed scraps from other people’s lives.” At the end, Gilda wants to tell Nathan there is a kind of heroism in facing everyday messes.
The Peaceable Kingdom
Francine Prose’s second collection of short stories contains highly polished presentations of contemporary characters whose peaceable lives are disrupted by challenge and change. The stories in this collection are clever, well-written, highly formal fictions, complete with the conventional, vaguely dissatisfying sense of closure contemporary readers have come to expect in the well-made short story. On the surface, the characters seem ordinary enough: a young woman on her honeymoon who already questions her commitment to her husband, a reserved librarian whose fascination with a man is based on the books she reads, a teenage girl who is followed to Paris by a boy she thought she loved.
Beneath the peaceable surface of everyday life, however, Prose unearths and exposes those moments of awareness when the smooth flow of things becomes jagged and undependable. In many of these stories, characters have made what they think are reasonable choices, only to experience an unpredicted and inexplicable disruption of that formerly comfortable decision. As in many modern short stories, things are simply not what they seem in the world of Francine Prose; the reader is always in tension with the strange and enigmatic. Even the titles of many of the stories suggest this combination of the mundane and the mysterious: “Talking Dogs,” “Cauliflower Heads,” “Rubber Life,” “Amateur Voodoo,” “Potato World,” and “Dog Stories.” Prose’s stories in this collection are a pleasure to read, but it is a somewhat bloodless, formalist pleasure. One comes to the end of these stories full of admiration for a job well done but not always full of awe for the complex mystery of what it means to be human.
“Guided Tours of Hell”
Prose tackles a delicate subject in the title story of her collection Guided Tours of Hell—a comic, satiric treatment of the Jewish Holocaust. The way she manages this task is to focus on two characters—Jiri Krakauer, a poet whose only claim to fame is that he survived two years in a death camp where he had an affair with Kafka’s sister, Ottla, and Landau, a second-rate writer who has written a play entitled To Kafka from Felice. The story takes place in the present time at a Kafka conference in Germany where Landau reads his play and Krakauer reads his poetry.
The central event of the story is a tour that the two men make with the attendees of the conference to the death camp where Krakauer was imprisoned. Landau is filled with jealousy at Krakauer’s star status and angry that he has been largely ignored. Thinking there is something obscene about a guided tour of hell, unless you are the poet Dante, Landau suffers throughout the story, convinced that Krakauer never really suffered at all during his incarceration at the hands of the Nazis. The fact that Krakauer has profited from the Holocaust is more than Landau can bear.
Landau’s problem, says the ironic narrator, is his falseness, his lack of depth, “the reason why, he secretly fears, his play is basically garbage, idiotic, hysterical.” Throughout the story, Landau shifts back and forth between justifying and castigating himself, between thinking that the world needs writers like Krakauer for he has experienced the real thing and thinking that Krakauer is a fake, posturing for praise and toadying for applause. The basic irony of the story is that Landau envies Krakauer his experience in the death camp—a fact that Krakauer understands, as he says near the end of the story: “The dirty truth is, you envy us, you wish it had happened to you. You wish you’d gotten the chance to survive Auschwitz or the Gulag.”
However, this realization does not does not exonerate Krakauer; Landau is right about him—he is making the Holocaust into a party piece, he revels in his survival, and he lies about his experience, plagiarizing the works of other writers to create those lies. In her usual formally structured way, Prose has Landau realize at the end that they are living a Kafka story, specifically “The Judgment,” reenacting the classic Kafka confrontation between father and son.
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