The Peaceable Kingdom

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Francine Prose’s short fictions are clever, well-written, highly formal objects, complete with the conventional, vaguely dissatisfying sense of closure contemporary readers have come to expect in the well-made short story. Typically, their surface subjects 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 he 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 ordinary is always in tension with the strange and the enigmatic. Even the titles of many of the stories suggest this combination of the mundane and the mysterious: “Talking Dog,” “Cauliflower Heads,” “Rubber Life,” “Amateur Voodoo,” “Potato World,” and “Dog Stories.”

Prose’s stories are a pleasure to read, but it is a somewhat bloodless, formalist pleasure. One comes to the end of one 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.