Lynne Sharon Schwartz Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s short stories and novels often focus on fear, especially the fear of loss: of love, of spouse, of children, of looks and physical capacities, of mind and personhood. Most but not all of her principal characters are females who strive mightily to avoid loss of one sort or another and then, often, to survive its inevitability. In the short story “Do Something About It,” for instance (published in May/June, 1995, in The North American Review), her central figure struggles to come to terms with the senseless death of her husband, a reporter who has been killed in a police raid in the Bronx. An earlier story, “What I Did for Love,” develops the similar theme of a woman’s trying to survive the unimaginable death of her husband; in this story she is also trying to protect her daughter from the realities of death, first of guinea pigs, then of Carl, husband and father. One cannot change the world very much, especially in overcoming the fundamental reality of death and loss.

Many of her works of fiction appear to have close connections to events within her own life. “The Last Frontier,” for example, utilizes as its inciting event the fire that took place in her own New York City apartment building (owned by Columbia University) and that engendered her first nonfiction work, We Are Talking About Homes: A Great University Against Its Neighbors. “Two Portraits of Rembrandt” is in some measure a tribute to her father, as she writes in Ruined by Reading. “The Wrath-Bearing Tree,” in Acquainted with the Night, and Other Stories, would appear to stem in part from the death of her father, a lawyer, in a hospital. Certainly her fictional pieces develop from the close observation of ordinary life around her, its pains and its pleasures, its obsessive and irrational fears, and its very real losses. As she argues in her discussion in Ruined by Reading of Henry James’s The Awkward Age (1897-1899), his characters “simply didn’t care enough about ordinary human fulfillments—love, sex, work—to be credible.” Schwartz’s characters care very much about “ordinary human fulfillments” and that is the compelling charm of her fiction.

Acquainted with the Night, and Other Stories

In this 1984 collection of sixteen stories, all of which were previously published elsewhere, Schwartz explores in a variety of voices a number of painful issues: the death of a parent; the nature of marriage; the effects of the mental illness of a child on a relationship; the difficulties of breaking the social barriers between races of the same class; the strategies one employs to deal with loss, whether of identity or of a life partner; the births and deaths of relationships; the adaptations of immigrants. The more satisfying of the stories offer technically clever and effective beginnings and endings, as well as a strongly realized narrative voice, whatever the technical narrative point of view.

“The Age of Analysis” takes a sharply satiric look at the vogue for psychoanalytical “talk therapy.” In the story, a happily married professional couple, both of whom are therapists, find themselves incapable of dealing with their son, Paul, who is, from an early age, prone to temper tantrums and destructive fits. Thus, they engage first a child psychiatrist and then, in the natural course...

(The entire section is 1391 words.)