William Saroyan Short Fiction Analysis
While William Saroyan cultivated his prose to evoke the effect of a “tradition of carelessness,” of effortless and sometimes apparently formless ruminations and evocations, he was in reality an accomplished and conscious stylist whose influences are varied and whose total effect is far more subtle than the seemingly “breezy” surface might at first suggest. His concern for the lonely and poor—ethnic outsiders, barflies, working girls, children—and their need for love and connectedness in the face of real privation recalls Sherwood Anderson. All of Saroyan’s best work was drawn from his own life (although the central character must be regarded as a persona, no matter how apparently connected to the author). In this aspect, and in his powerful and economical capacity to evoke locale and mood, Saroyan is in the tradition of Thomas Wolfe. The empathetic controlling consciousness and adventurous experiments with “formless form” also place Saroyan in the tradition that includes Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein. It might also be noted that Saroyan’s work shows the influence of Anton Chekhov in his use of seemingly “plotless” situations which nevertheless reveal some essential moment in the characters’ lives and philosophical insight into the human condition.
Certainly, while the tone of Saroyan’s stories evolves from the richly comic to the stoical to the sadly elegiac mood of his later work, his ethos stands counter to the naturalists and the ideologically programmatic writers of the 1930’s, the period during which he produced some of his best work. Often his stories portray the world from the perspective of children, whose instinctual embrace of life echoes the author’s philosophy. Saroyan wrote, “If you will remember that living people are as good as dead, you will be able to perceive much that is very funny in their conduct that you might never have thought of perceiving if you did not believe that they were as good as dead.” Both the tone and outlook of that statement are paradigmatic.
“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”
The title story of his first and most enduring collection, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” is still one of the most ambitious stylistic exercises of the Saroyan canon and an embodiment of the first phase of his career. The impressionistic style uses a welter of literary allusions in a stream-of-consciousness technique to portray the inner mind of an educated but destitute writer during the Depression who is literally starving to death as his mind remains lucid and aggressively inquiring. The poignant contrast between the failing body and the illuminated mind might evoke pity and compassion on the part of the reader, but somehow Saroyan invokes respect and acceptance as well.
The story begins with the random associated thoughts of the half-dreaming writer which reveal both the chaos of the present era—“ hush the queen, the king, Karl Franz, black Titanic, Mr. Chaplin weeping, Stalin, Hitler, a multitude of Jews ”—and the young protagonist’s literary erudition: “ Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, a wordless rhyme of early meaning, Finlandia, mathematics highly polished and slick as green onions to the teeth, Jerusalem, the path to paradox.”
Upon awakening, the writer plunges into “the trivial truth of reality.” He is starving, and there is no work. He ironically contemplates starvation as he combines the food in a restaurant into a mental still life; yet without a shred of self-pity, and with great dignity in spite of a clerk’s philistine and patronizing attitude, he attempts to obtain a job at an employment agency where the only skill which the writer can offer to a pragmatic world is the ability to type. He is relieved when there is no work because he can now devote his remaining energies to writing a literary last will and testament, an “Apology for Permission to Live.”
He drinks copious amounts of water to...
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