Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Salute Your Shorts: "A Rose For Emily"

Growing up in the suburban South, it was hard to see the romance or the adventure that many associate with turn of the century Southern life. But there was always a palpable darkness, the threat of snakes in tall blades of grass, even in fully developed housing developments. The news was filled with the criminality of the proudly uneducated, bootlegging crystal meth where they used to bootleg moonshine. Teenagers with loaded fists and loaded guns, ready to pounce on anything unfamiliar.

This is why, of the great American writers of the 1920's, Faulkner's stories tell of a place I actually recognize. I personally can't connect to Hemingway at all, a topic for another post, and Fitzgerald romanticized a life I dream about and aspire to, but I'm not sure actually exists. But there has always been something in Faulkner's novels and short stories that is reflected in the South even today.

I first read "A Rose For Emily" many years ago, probably in an American short story class I took at the University of Texas. This story didn't make the same impression on me that his novels did, such as Light in August, despite continuing the saga of the Sartoris clan.

The story was originally serialized in five parts in 1930. Having the luxury to read the whole thing in one sitting today could almost stop you from paying attention to the little details, the details that foreshadow the final horror. The first couple of parts set the mysterious Miss Emily up as a sort of Southern Miss Havisham, who famously decayed in her mansion along with her 50 year old wedding cake.

But, much like the people of the town, we can only guess at Miss Emily's inner life. We see into her house only as outside observers, never invited in or invited to participate. Nonetheless, by the end of the story, we have been given all the pieces to figure out exactly what happened, and very strong hints as to why.

Like any good horror story, the setting plays as important a role as any who walk and breathe, and Miss Emily's house plays much the same role as her black manservant, appointed liaisons with the outside world, who also function as shields. Faulkner conveys the passage of time by the decay of the house and the greying of Tobe's hair. And only when Miss Emily herself finally decays, do we find out her terrible secret.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Literary Horror: We Need to Talk About Kevin

When there is no darkness in the world, we create it in ourselves. We long to become anti-heroes as plain vanilla heroism becomes boring. That is one possible explanation for why Kevin, the Columbine kids, and the University of Virginia pick up weapons and slaughter their classmates.

But Lionel Shriver's superb novel is more concerned with how blame and recrimination diffuses. Kevin can't just be evil, he must surely be a product of poor parenting, of being ignored, of various Freudian explain-alls that place the blame squarely on everyone but him. And then again, maybe he really is just the non-supernatural incarnation of Damien.

The structure of the book, a series of letters written from Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband, lays everything out the way she saw it, events narrated as unreliably as possible. There are beautiful passages where you wonder whether Eva has known from the start and rejects Kevin correctly, or whether she had an irrational hatred which in fact turned him evil.

We could never know for sure about Kevin, as the reader, until he commits his dastardly final act. And to say anything about that would be to spoil one of the most shocking surprises committed to page.

I am envious of all who are about to begin this dark, dark journey.