Last week I taught Edith Pearlman's "The Story" for the first time.
It was a bit of a risk: I love Pearlman's work, but I didn't know how my very varied group of adult learners would react. I probably shouldn't have worried. I'd hardly got into the room before one student began enthusing about it.
I was so pleased: Pearlman has become my all time favourite short story writer this year, since her collection Binocular Vision was recommended to me by writer and teacher Sherry Ashworth.
I want my students - and myself - to learn to slow down when reading short stories. I want us to notice the sentences, notice the words. Not to skim read or scan the page, but to read each word mindfully, like poetry. Some people do this naturally; most of us don't. Pearlman's writing reminds us to decelerate.
"The Story" seems to be about two couples simply having dinner together. Nothing happens. Or rather, something doesn't happen. One of them - Lucienne - decides not to tell a story about herself, a story which reveals who she is, why her life has taken its shape, a story she has told many times before, which would certainly bring her closer to the others at the table. The mystery of this tale is why she chooses not to speak.
Cue much discussion in class. Again, I want my students to learn that simply going back to the author's words carefully will give them answers. (Hoping this doesn't come across as a primary school level instruction - but honestly, primary school was probably the last time any of us read s-l-o-w-l-y.)
The story opens with three lines of dialogue (from Harry, Lucienne's husband, and the other couple), and a silence (from Lucienne who "uncharacteristically said nothing"). Pearlman is never afraid of introducing lots of characters into short stories. But the only way to read the first couple of paragraphs is attentively - or perhaps twice. Otherwise, as my students noticed, you may get lost in the names.
Barely have you become acquainted with Harry and Lucienne Savitsky and Justin and Judith da Costa, you're plunged into another paragraph describing the restaurant violinist, the name of the restaurant ("The Hussar"), its 26 year old chef and a nervous busboy. In just two paragraphs, you're submerged in the world and setting of this story but at this point have no idea where the story is going. The only way is onwards.
Unless it's backwards. The story hinges around a flashback of sorts: Lucienne’s story - which is related to us as readers (but not to Justin and Julia da Costa) by Harry. Usually, I’d say to writers, work your flashback into the story, weave it in so the reader hardly notices we are reading about the past of the story. Stories have their present narrative time, where the action is taking place, and a history or a memory (the back story). The key is to stay in that present narrative time. But this story is different. Pearlman does something I’d usually counsel writers against: setting out a flashback in italics, as a separate story. How does Pearlman get away with it?
Well, she waits until the story is almost over before revealing it. Beginning writers often place flashbacks very early on before the reader has the sense of where the story is going.
Second, this flashback isn't simply a memory, it’s a story which has been repeated many times over Lucienne’s life. It's presented to us as a story within a story, and the way it stands out on the page emphasises this.
Third, it’s told with “the nouns unadorned, the syntax plain, the vocabularly undemanding” – plain language which contrasts with its dramatic and emotional content, and indeed with the sophisticated way that Pearlman relates the rest of the scene.
The best part of teaching this story was when I asked my students the significance of Lucienne's one shouldered shrug at the end. And seeing realisation dawn on their faces as they reread the flashback section. The power of a well placed gesture.