Pieces of Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

One does not know whether to classify Mark Schorer as a critic who also wrote fiction or a storyteller who also wrote criticism. Whichever he was, this new collection of the late professor’s short stories and autobiographical pieces has considerable artistic merit. At their best, the stories obey Schorer’s own critical rule, as laid down in his well-known essay “Technique as Discovery”: such technical skills as the control of language and the manipulation of point of view must provide fiction with the objectivity needed for achieving artistic significance, a significance that cannot be achieved by the serving up of mere hunks of raw subject matter.

Consider, for example, “The Lonely Constellation,” perhaps the finest of the stories. Like many of the others, it deals with the promiscuous desires of a middle-class husband or wife, yet this particular story achieves its special comic clarity through a carefully controlled pattern of irony, both verbal and situational. A book salesman flying home from Boston in an almost empty plane weaves, within his mind, a philosophic reverie about the supposed contrast between human togetherness during World War II and our present state of dismal isolation. But an undercutting sequence of memories and events shows us that the meaning of the salesman’s meditation is less philosophic than sex-starved: pretty girls singing popular love songs, the dullness of his wife and family, fantasies about the smiling airline hostesses who merge before his eyes with famous movie stars, memories of an attractive female publishing executive who rebuffed his sexual overtures in such a graceful way that he scarcely even felt rejected. At last the salesman’s philosophizing collapses into the comedy of dreams, as he falls asleep and sees himself peddling his wares to a planeload of “lovely girls.” He wakes and, with fuddled innuendo, requests that one of the stewardesses come sit beside him. But then, when his sexual invitation is challenged, he breaks down in tears and instead merely asks for a glass of water.

Technique in “The Lonely Constellation” is not just a surface embellishment imposed upon Schorer’s subject but a method of giving his subject both meaning and value. Without his ironic control, the story would have been no more than a sensual or sentimental record of trivial eroticism. With his control, the piece becomes a pointed account of the comic incongruity between a man’s self-inflating dreams and the tawdry actuality of his life. In Schorer’s own terminology, “technique” here serves as the instrument of “discovery”—specifically, the discovery of an objective moral judgment of his lonely book salesman.

There are four additional stories concerning a married person’s dabblings with the pleasures of promiscuity, yet each is so different that again we can perceive the supremacy, in Schorer’s fiction, of technique over subject. In “Is Anything Troubling You, Dear?” the emphasis is on the self-centered blindness of a windbag of a wife who cannot perceive that her soft-spoken husband has sought relief from her in extramarital sex. “Picking Up the Pieces” describes yet another faithless husband, but the point here is the wife’s concluding realization that a single passing fling has no real importance in the enduring experience of marriage. The significance, however, of “Don’t Take Me for Granted” lies in the opposing attitudes of a man and his wife toward a whimsical invitation to a tryst sent by a female graduate student of the professor husband: daredevil puckishness on his part and shocked insecurity on the part of his “liberal” wife. Schorer’s “The Unwritten Story” hints at a wife’s infidelity during a couple’s return trip to Italy after many years of marriage, yet this piece stresses the contrast between their former happiness and their present grubby estrangement. To say that these stories share a common theme would be to miss their variety of effect: satire, domestic affirmation, comic mischievousness, subtle depiction of malaise. This range is achieved by the author’s shaping control of language, point of view, and carefully placed symbols: a blind man in “Is Anything Troubling You, Dear?,” a girl practicing on the piano in “Picking Up the Pieces” and at last getting it right, a violent “crazy wind” in “Don’t Take Me for Granted,” a refuse-covered island in “The Unwritten Story.”

Unlike the short stories, however, the autobiographical interstices in Pieces of Life at first seem violations of...

(The entire section is 1869 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Book World. August 28, 1977, p. F2.

Booklist. LXXIV, October 15, 1977, p. 349.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, September 1, 1977, p. 979.

Library Journal. CII, November 1, 1977, p. 2263.

New York Times Book Review. October 2, 1977, p. 12.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, August 29, 1977, p. 353.