(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Penelope Gilliatt’s short fiction illustrates the twentieth century phenomenon of the de-centered narrative. Breaching the Aristotelian holism of mythos (plot) comprising beginning, middle, and end, de-centered fiction disregards plot and eliminates one or two of the narrative stages. De-centering is not exclusively a matter of removing the middle and either leaving only beginning and end or presenting only the removed middle as the narrative. Rather, de-centering eschews the triad that is defined by a middle.

Other of Gilliatt’s favored themes include Slavic culture, gourmet cooking and dining, appreciation of music (especially opera and modern music), language study (English, Greek, Latin, and modern foreign languages), dentistry, and the superiority of human brainwork to computerized authority. Her short fiction is also incident with eccentric affairs of affection, notably May-December romances and grandparent-grandchild attachments.

Discernible in each of her collections of short stories, moreover, is a thematic or imagistic continuity. The exception is Twenty-two Stories, which merely culls representative selections from the five preceding collections. The skull motif informs What’s It Like Out?, with the word “skull” appearing in seven of the nine stories. In the two exceptions, “The Tactics of Hunger” and “Come Back If It Doesn’t Get Better,” a preoccupation with death substantiates the motif of the skull.

What’s It Like Out?

In Gilliatt’s first collection of short stories, for example, “Fred and Arthur” is a dyad consisting, first, of Arthur teamed as a comic entertainer with Fred and, second, of Arthur living without Fred after his partner marries and then dies. With Fred, Arthur is fat and jocund; without him, Arthur becomes thin and serious. The triad, consisting of Arthur, Fred, and Fred’s wife, destroys the duo of Fred and Arthur.

Aristotelian or classical logic, then, is rooted in triadism—for example, the syllogism. De-centering disestablishes classical logic. “Living on the Box” spotlights a vestigially classicist writer attempting to imbue his nature poetry with spatial logic and moral order. He attributes the staleness of his existence not to his own unawareness of creative disorder but to the world, to which he cannot adjust, and to his wife, whom he neglects. His wife sees through his inauthenticity and, after their inevitable separation, remains available to him in his unacknowledged dependence on her. The story, lacking any specific beginning or end, amounts to a juxtaposition of the limitations of logic with the inherence of chaos.

“The Redhead” holds up to view another person, a six-foot-tall woman upset by the “romanticism of the period,” who opts for logic and finds it hellish but yields in time to the attraction of Newtonian mathematics. The narrative, which changelessly details the redhead’s changelessness, doubly confutes logic. Harriet, the redhead, is said to be fifteen in 1912, which would make 1897 her birth date; later, she is said to have her fortieth birthday in 1943, which would set her birth date at 1903. Further, the second paragraph of the story relates the unchanged color of her hair “to the end of her life,” and the penultimate paragraph of the story begins, “She is still alive.” The story saw three editions without revision, making it clear that its plotlessness is abetted by contradictions that identify the narrative as an instrument of opposition to logic.

“What’s It Like Out?,” the last and titular story of the first collection, introduces a theme that becomes prominent in Gilliatt’s short fiction: old age, or the final period of life, as the most efficacious period. The once-conventional notion of the triadic life—youth, maturity, age—was de-centered by the twentieth century’s obsession with youth; Gilliatt elects an obsession with advanced age. Her octogenarian Milly and Franklin Wilberforce, for all their age-related physical impairments, prove to be psychologically and intellectually superior to a young newspaper interviewer named Ben. Milly evinces her existentialist authenticity by her thought, twice expressed, that she will never become accustomed to the ravaging of old age and that she has not “any obligation to get used to it.” Fifteen of the sixty stories published through 1990 develop this theme, including the especially compelling “Cliff-Dwellers,” a story in a one-act play format in which the octogenarian Emma and Henry sustain the full psychological experience of youth without a trace of self-deception.

Nobody’s Business

Nobody’s Business is primarily a collective variation on the theme of anticomputerism and, secondarily, a dyad consisting, first, of five stories in imitative evocation of literary works and, second, of four stories echoing such twentieth century trends as Freudianism, socialism, and astrology. The sequence begins with “FRANK” (Family Robot Adapted to the Needs of Kinship), a satire on cybernetics, which extends the cautionary observations about the mechanistic displacement of humankind in Karel apek’s R.U.R. (1920; English translation, 1923) and concludes with the titular story, a celebration of the aged at the expense of the obnoxious young. “An Antique Love Story” places British Adam-and-Eve figures Amy and Ed in a seedily Edenic New York, where a Polish-Jewish child is educated by computerized telephone (Touch-Tone-Tuition), while a Mrs. Green, who insists that she is God, knits human organs; Amy plans a trip to Czechoslovakia, the homeland, incidentally, of apek. “Staying in Bed,” inclusive of a theatrical seminar called...

(The entire section is 2356 words.)