School Days

[an analysis by Samuel Wampler]

Edward P. Jones’ short story, “The First Days,” is very intriguing by the prospect the first line sets out for the reader. A short excerpt of the sentence, “before I learned to be ashamed of my mother,” hooks the reader into the story with a question of interest. Why would this person be ashamed of their mother? The story leads the reader on until a peculiar bit comes into play, where the narrator comments that her pale green slip and underwear with a little girl dancing on the front are new articles. The perfume is entered in, as well as the detail that the toe of the narrator’s leather shoes is nicked in class—all of this done in the past tense—which tells the reader that the story is told from the perspective of an older person.

This story is simple in its sentences, but powerful. Everything the reader needs to actually know about this piece is actually right on the first page. The dichotomy between the child and mother are elaborated, as well as the motif of abandonment. The narrator’s mother was forced to abandon her first choice for a school, her God for a different school, and her child to a more-than-likely thought “disorganized” school. The narrator deals with the abandonment set forth by the mother’s echoing footsteps. By weaving the motif through this story, the reader can make sense of the excerpt from the first sentence. The motif also ties the story together like a bow. The metaphor of the perfume also ties the story together by representing that gardenia is not the school of the mother’s choice, and Walker-Jones is much more suited to the scent.

All in all, this story was very concise and mellow. By addressing the motifs, the piece really comes together well and allows for an easy read that doesn’t require too much depth of thought.

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A Vulnerable Man Will Cling to His Name

[an analysis by Jacob Harn]

In Raymond Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles” a middle-aged man and woman, who are in some sort of a domestic partnership, struggle to reconcile their decaying personal lives as they navigate bankruptcy. Toni, who came into the relationship with children, and Leo, who had no children of his own, had a comfortable consumerist life that now seems to be in disrepair. They liquidated their personal belongings that hadn’t already been reclaimed by credit agencies and now must sell their car—their last item of monetary value. Knowing that seductive tactics will yield best payment, Toni fixes herself up and goes to sell the car. The two characters successfully avoid the unwholesome possibilities this transaction will likely demand, and through the course of a single night, they must come to terms with the state of their lives. Toni assures Leo she will “get out of it” but ends up staying out all night and getting drunk with the car salesman. Toni confronts her ill-will toward Leo (who presumably got them into the situation), and the car salesman becomes an escape from her life for the night. Leo falls apart at home alone, drinking scotch and whiskey, and realizes how vulnerable he is to the possibility that Toni will abandon him for something better.

Carver is a minimalist and condenses a lot of meeting into short, percussive sentences. At first these seem to contain trivial bits of information. The sentences have a cumulative effect, and they begin to convey really powerful insights of the characters in their series of short and simple words.

What I found particularly interesting in this bare but powerful language was his use of dialogue tags. As writers, we tend to want to spice up our stories by varying the tags, but Carver simply uses, “He said” and “She said” in the majority of the piece. And when he decides to use the character’s names to attribute certain lines of dialogue, it is not by accident, and it is his intention to have our ears perk up when he does drop a “Leo said.”

On page 146, it is said, “‘Jesus.’ Leo says, ‘did you have to say that?'” in response to Toni’s allusion that she will likely have to use her body to get a good deal. Leo’s status as a man in a relationship is in jeopardy, and he needs to confirm his existence, his place in life, at a time where all of that is at risk. Carver uses Leo’s name in this dialogue tag, rather than a simple “he,” to highlight Leo’s vulnerability in the face of such a emasculating prospect. Carver states “Leo” to help Leo fight from becoming just another “he.”

Later in the story, after Leo has all but fallen apart over Toni’s night out, it is said, “‘I want to tell you,’ Leo says and wet his lips,” while talking to the car salesman in the driveway—in the car. Carver gives him his only way to claim his place in life. With nothing to his name but a wayward wife and children that aren’t his, Leo has only his title. “Leo says,” and so Leo still exists and has not yet lost everything.

The Disillusion of Boyhood Romance

[an analysis by Miguel Mendoza]

“Cinnamon Skin,” by Edmund White, is a coming of age story about a young man who struggles with his homosexuality, particularly when faced with his father’s old fashioned notions of manhood. In the story, the young narrator is taken on a trip to Mexico where he is overwhelmed by the country’s exoticism, especially when contrasted with his native Chicago. This setting proves propitious for the cultivation of the young man’s sexuality, which culminates in a clandestine meeting with a local man in which the narrator loses more than his virginity—his innocence, his romantic notions of the world and of love. He gains a lurid cynicism, and the changes he experiences are mirrored in Mexico City itself when the narrator returns as an adult to find it crumbling, much as he himself was crumbling: HIV positive and on the verge of suicide.

The story is written as a memoir, in past tense and with the knowledge that the narrator is telling the story years after the fact. This method allows the narrator to color even his earliest experiences with the perspective he gains in later years. Some of his cynicism is apparent in his telling of early events, although this remains subtle until the climax of the story. The overall tone is frank, but easygoing; it’s not until the end that the tone changes drastically, becoming blunt, unapologetic and even shocking when used to juxtapose the young narrator’s childhood fantasies. In adopting this particular harshness, the tone breaks the illusions cradled by the narrator’s naiveté, and delivers instead a sobering reality. To contextualize, here is the crude reality of what the narrator thought would be a fantastically romantic encounter in an exotic land: “Pablo [a pianist in his late thirties] undressed. He didn’t kiss me. He pulled my underpants down, spit on his wide, stubby cock, and pushed it up my ass. He didn’t hold me in his arms.” Keeping in mind that the narrator is at this time a twelve year old boy, the grotesque nonchalance of the passage shocks the reader in a way perhaps not dissimilar to the shock the narrator may have received upon discovering his fantasies to be nothing more than youthful fantasies.

Apart from tone, a cunning selection of words helps deliver the same grotesqueness on which this story depends. The author wants the reader to be as shocked as the narrator was when he lost his boyhood innocence, and to achieve this, there must be a profound contrast between the young, effeminate boy, and the man who took so much from him. To this end, the pianist is described as “…a jowly Indian in his late thirties,” with a “…fat belly…” and who smelled like “…cold sweat.” When these descriptions are compounded, along with the blunt tone of the story, the reader experiences, perhaps, what the author intended for the narrator—an uncomfortable awakening, so to speak, or an abrupt, and maybe even forceful, realization: the world is not as a young, fanciful boy imagines it to be. It is harsher and crueler.

An Enemy of the State

[an analysis by Krystal Davidowitz]

“The Twenty-Seventh Man” was written by Nathan Englander. Never have I read, let alone heard of, Nathan Englander, but I was captivated when the story was referred to me as an “interesting read for a Jewish writer.”

“The Twenty-Seventh Man” takes place in Soviet Russia during World War II. Stalin had signed allegiance to Hitler, which included the signing of a warrant for the execution of 27 writers whom were Yiddish living in Russia. They were collected and distributed in groups of four, and put into cells that didn’t have windows. The story then focuses on the cell that holds Moishe Bretzy (poet), Vasily Korinsky (famous writer whose wife was Yiddish), Y. Zunser (Anti-Soviet writer), and Pinchas Pelovits (an unknown writer). These were the last men to be captured—Pinchas Pelovits being the twenty-seventh man brought in. After being tortured, starved and dehydrated, the four writers are lined up outside and shot in the back.

The power of an idea is incredible.

Nathan Englander is able to prove his point in his writing, and he does it with the characterization of Pinchas Pelovits.

In the story, Englander puts a lot of emphasis on Bretzy, Korinsky and Zunser. Bretzy was “a true lover of vodka and its country of origin. One would not have pegged him as one of history’s most sensitive Yiddish poets” (249). Korinsky “was a principal member of the Anti-Facist Committee” (254). Zunser was the “oldest of the group and a target of the first serious verbal attacks on cosmopolitans back in ’49” (249). Englander matches each personality to their background perfectly, and the story continues centering around their thoughts and conflict, paying little to no attention to Pelovits whose “parents never knew what label to give their son, who wrote all day but did not publish, who laughed and cried over his novels but was gratingly logical in his contact with every day world” (250). Pelovits was disregarded because he was not well known, because he was not famous, because no one had ever heard of him. He was left lying on his side, occasionally mumbling lines to a story that he was dreaming up.

How does that work? How does that characterize Pinchas Pelovits enough to make him symbolize how amazing the power of an idea is?

“I am the one who does not belong here.” This is said by Pinchas Pelovits after he is given some water toward the end. Capturing the attention of his cellmates, they finally inquire at his reason for being incarcerated with them.

“But you are not here in place of us, you are here as one of us. Do you write?”

“Oh, yes, that’s all I do. That’s all I’ve ever done, except for reading and my walks.”

“If it makes any difference, we welcome you as an equal.” Zunser surveyed the cubicle. “I’d much rather be saying this to you in my home.”

“Are you sure I’m here for being a writer?” He looked at the three men.

“No just for being a writer, my friend.” Bretzky clapped him lightly on the back. “You are here as a subversive writer. An enemy of the state! Quite a feat for an unknown” (257).

There.

That was it. It was all Englander needed to say about Pinchas Pelovits to make his point clear. Pinchas Pelovits was an unknown writer whose voice was heard without his knowledge. Murmurs and whispers of his writing spread across Europe, like wildfire so intense that Hitler wanted him dead because of it.

Englander spent so much time focusing and characterizing all of the “famous” writers that nothing seemed to compare to Pelovits when he was described as “equal.” Passion and the love for writing and reading is what brought Pelovits to his death. His writing, unknown to most, yet adored by many, sparked a flame that Hitler needed to be distinguished.

If Englander had not put Pinchas Pelovits into the cell with Zunser and the other famous writers, the story wouldn’t have made enough impact to survive on its own.

The Music Box

by Alexa Velez

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