Friday, September 25, 2009

Short Story of the Year (Thus Far)

“The Fountain House” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (August 31) is the best short story published in the The New Yorker this year. The runner-up is Craig Raine’s “Love Affair with Secondaries” (June 1), and both are coincidentally set in the former Soviet Bloc.

“The Fountain House” is a retelling of Shakeseare’s The Winter’s Tale. A man, heartbroken about the death of his daughter, seeks to bring her back to life, and succeeds. The tone of “The Fountain House” is hopeful, but the hope is so exultant, so extraordinary, so outlandish, that it betrays an underlying despair. Ultimately, the father awakens to the reality of the operating room and the morgue, but in between are marvelous dreams.

In one dream, he brings his daughter her lunch, as he did when she was a young child attending an idyllic summer camp. When he opens the sandwich, he sees an uncooked heart and is afraid his daughter will die if she eats it. He quickly tries to steal it away, but suddenly his daughter’s arms become supernaturally long. He eats the heart himself, thinking he will die, but instead wakes up on a gurney about to give blood.

“The Fountain House” upends the dread of loss and death with the infectious colloquial quality of the great Russian storytellers. The dream sequences recall Akaky Akakievich’s delirium in Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Indeed, when the father seeks out his daughter, he comes across a harassed morgue attendant, a functionary wonderfully dissociated from death. Everyone has been looking for the same body and he is simply annoyed. He has work to do. What do these people want?

The story falls within the surrealist tradition. It is a parable, without a moral, that negotiates freely between humor, aggression, and death. Looming in the background is the mysterious explosion, the potential final scene of the girl dying in her father’s arms, cut and pasted into the story’s second paragraph. The net effect of “The Fountain House” is Sisyphean, the optimism as delightful as it is hard to grasp.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.