Review Of The
Collected Stories Of Carson McCullers
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/22/09
In reading The Collected Stories Of Carson McCullers I was expecting good, and possibly great, things. After all, her first published novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a near great novel. However, this collection of twenty-one pieces proves that McCullers was better in the longer forms of fiction, and, at best, mediocre in the short story form. This is in keeping with the fact that few artists can excel to the point of greatness, in more than one art, or even in more than one genre in the art.
There are, of course, some wonderfully written moments in the book, but overall, the tales all end up as premature entities, as if incomplete. The best of the twenty-one tales in the book, not coincidentally, are the two longest, the famed novellas The Member Of The Wedding and The Ballad Of The Sad Café. The former novella follows an affluent young girl with some psycho-emotional problems, due to her coming pubescence. She is shunned by her peers, and spends her time with the family cook, and a male cousin. She is perceptive, but her life is without purpose until her brother returns from Alaska to marry his girlfriend. The girl then fantasizes about the wedding, in between listening to the progress of the Second World War on radio- which propounds fantasies of places and people abroad. This leads to the delusion that she will somehow be able to live with her brother and his bride, and travel the world, taking on a pseudonym, to boot:
At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.
She makes a scene at the wedding, after demanding to go with the couple
on their honeymoon, and is reprimanded, and decides to run away. She decides to
‘hit the rails,’ but is caught. After her cousin dies from spinal
meningitis, and the cook decides to quit, she moves away, and the tale ends with
the girl no better off than in the beginning:
It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colors were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. ‘I am simply made about- ’ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.
The Ballad Of The Sad Café is set in a small
Southern town that is old, and shows its age: ‘itself is dreary….lonesome,
sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the
world.’ It depicts a love triangle between the female owner of the titular café,
the town hunchback, and the café owner’s wayward ex-husband- a petty
criminal. The tale is another reworking of the themes of the estranged
loner in society, which dominates The Member Of The Wedding and The
Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The café, in fact, is no longer extant, but
recalled via memory by the narrator of the tale. The owner takes in a man to her
home- the hunchback, who claims to be a distant cousin, and soon tongues are
wagging about town. Town busybodies soon demand to know why the café owner is
living sinfully. The owner does not explain her choice, but offers them alcohol,
which the men accept, and so begins the furtive Sad Café. The owner softenms in
her look and person, and the hunchback seems to be the cause of this positive
trend, yet the café owner is ambivalent. Like most McCullers characters, she
seems to suffer from relentless anhedonia, stating of he rlover, ‘….the
lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible
relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.’
Her relationship with the hunchback lasts four years, and the café becomes a
real business. Then, her ex- comes back to town, on parole. The hunchback tries
to make nice with the criminal, by inviting him to stay with him and his
ex-wife. The owner begins to suffer anxieties. She fights with her ex- and
begins choking him, until the hunchback restrains her. She feels he has betrayed
her, and he furthers this when he helps the ex- rob her home, and they take off
together. The owner boards up her café, surfeited by memories and pain. While
not explicitly stated, there is a definite homo-erotic subtext between the two
male characters in the novel, something underlined with the novella’s coda,
called The Twelve Mortal Men. This coda briefly limns
the existence of a nearby group of chain gang workers, and describes how their
singing makes their existence- seven black men and five white men- bearable.
The rest of the tales in the book deal with similarly disaffected
characters, but never with the satisfying endings that the two longest pieces
have. The Sojourner is about a man who labels himself that title, and
struggles to find joy in a new familial setting. His anomic existence is summed
up best, this way:
There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.
Madame Zilensky And The King
Of Finland is a comic tale
that goes nowhere, while Wunderkind shows the disappointment of a child
prodigy who realizes that early precocity was nothing, and settles into
mediocrity. A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud follows yet another anomic character
in search of love, and, as one might surmise, at even this point- despite a
great wordsmithing ability, McCullers was a shockingly limited writer, in terms
of themes and narrative tropes.
As example, here is the ending of Madame Zilensky And The King Of
Finland. As stated, it is a comic tale, but it ends with a familiar trope,
although, as stated, very well written:
An hour later, Mr. Brook sat looking out of the window of his office. The trees along the quiet Westbridge street were almost bare, and the gray buildings of the college had a calm, sad look. As he idly took in the familiar scene, he noticed the Drakes’ old Airedale waddling along down the street. It was a thing he had watched a hundred times before, so what was it that struck him as strange? Then he realized with a kind of cold surprise that the old dog was running along backward. Mr. Brook watched the Airedale until he was out of sight, then resumed his work on the canons which had been turned in by the class in counterpoint.
This is the sort of thing that points out why good writers rarely make it to greatness. No matter how much wordcrafting skill one has, if one, essentially, tells a single tale, over and again, it points out a lack in the artist every bit as important as a writer, say, who has many great ideas, but no real skill with which to construct them well- think the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Other tales, like A Domestic Dilemma- about what its title states, or Sucker- on an abused child, while well wrought, state nothing of any depth. No other sory in the book even moved me to comment on, positively or negatively.
Carson McCullers is the quintessential example of a writer best read in
judiciously selected pieces, for, like a ‘poet’ like Thomas Hardy, the more
you read of her work, the greater her fall from a high stature accelerates. This
is not to say that anyone could argue she was a bad writer. No. Even her worst
tales are solidly, well wrought, if wholly predictable and surface-level,
pieces. It’s just that her reputation so far outstrips her
achievement that a disappointment is inevitable. Each tale lacks an organic
center, so to speak. What I mean is that McCullers seems to have a number of key
philosophic points she wants to wrap around a certain character, and then leaves
them draped in them, regardless of the demands of the evolving narrative to
expand. In a sense, she strangles or smothers her own babies in their cribs.
Every tale has a few of these ‘high points’- some of which I quoted above,
but, as the tales are so similar in tone and set-up, the plaints become
interchangeable. There is nothing unique to their tale’s own internal universe
that makes them notable.
As stated, this results in the fact that Carson McCullers had really only story to ever tell, and, as well wrought as these retellings can be, at times, repeasts get dull and boring. The human animal craves newer experiences. And while, in the other extreme, this results in the Lowest Common Denominator ADD sort of culture we now have, there is a great middle gound between that extreme and McCullers’ own fictive universe. Unfortunately, for both McCullers and the reader, she was never quite able, artistically nor personally, to find that rich center ground where greatness takes root.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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