I read a lot of short stories. A lot.
All my life I have read voraciously and read short stories particularly. After the advent of the ebook and the portable reader I have been able to kick it up a notch. My Kindle goes with me everywhere and I’m able to read in the small nooks of time that I can scare up. The short story is particularly good to gobble up in these little snips and sips. I usually read one at lunch and another before I go to sleep. That’s two short stories a day… and over a few years… over a handful of decades… they add up.
Call Me Ishmael
Forty years ago, I had an English professor ask me about my reading habits. I told him I had gone to high school in another country and life there consisted of days of boredom sandwiched between moments of stark terror. I had picked up the habit of reading whenever I could.
“But it is mostly junk,” I said, “Cheap Science Fiction and stuff like that.”
“Your sense of story is very strong.” the professor said, “Talking to students over the years, I think that the important thing is to read and it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you read a lot.”
Not too long ago, on this very blog, I did my Month of Short Stories entries – where I wrote about a short story each day. I enjoyed doing that and promised to write more about particular works that caught my fancy.
The other day I finished a large collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories called High Lonesome. It brings together her own favorites over forty years – from 1966 to 2006. Oates is a very prolific writer and it was good to peruse this sampling.
Alice Munro recently won the Noble Prize for her short stories and I like to compare the two writers. Munro is the unassailable master of the form – but on the whole, I prefer reading Oates. Munro’s writing concerns the life she has led and the people she has known and the wisdom she has acquired. Wonderful stuff and I am so happy she deservedly won the prize. However, Oates goes one step beyond – she kicks it up a notch. Oates writes about the void… the beyond… the horror that lies right on the other side of the tender membrane that divides our world from the realm of madness.
That is something I am interested in.
There are a lot of great and interesting stories in the collection, including the classic “Where are you going, Where Have You Been?” and the amazing “Heat” – which I wrote about before. Today, I want to talk about one of the later stories in the collection, “Life After High School.”
Spoilers will be written, so please, surprise everyone and read the story first. I found a PDF of it here.
“Life After High School” seems to be a popular story for school essay assignments – there is a lot written about it on this interweb thing. I looked at more than a few – and everybody seems to completely miss the point of the story.
You see… it’s really three stories in one. The first two are tricks played on the reader – then she hits you with the hammer, the third.
The first three quarters of the story is the tragic tale of unrequited love where Zachary Graff, the intelligent but socially awkward teenager falls in love with Sunny Burhman, the attractive and popular girl that everyone likes. He eventually, Senior Year, works up the nerve to propose to her and she, of course, says no. He is so heartbroken he kills himself by running his car in a closed garage. This devastates Miss Burhman, and she is “Sunny” no more.
So far, so good. An oft-told tale, one that every reader, especially a young person, will recognize and understand.
But Oates throws a twist. The story isn’t “High School” – it’s “Life After…” and, decades later a middle-aged Sunny Burhman contacts another student, Tobias Shanks, from those days. They meet for lunch and Sunny discovers that the two boys were gay lovers and that Zachary went to see him after she had rejected Zachary and, moreover, Zachary had left him a suicide note.
So now the story has morphed into one of a sensitive young man destroyed by society’s disapproval and Zachary’s proposal to Sunny was his last, futile attempt to “fit in.”
And that is where most people that read it leave the story. It is where I was ready to leave it… but not everything fit.
For example, the description that Oates provides of Zachary was a little odd. She said that most people were afraid of him. That doesn’t fit with the usual view of an odd, awkward, gay loser.
Also, Sunny says to him, “Zachary, it’s a free world.” But his response is, “Oh no it isn’t, Sunny. For some of us, it isn’t” A foreboding answer for a young person. There are plenty of other incongruities – I’ll leave some for you to find – enough to make my point clear on a second reading.
But finally, there was a detailed list of items that were found in his car at his death, it was said to be oddly littered. There was a Bible, some pizza crusts, textbooks, size eleven gym shoes, a ten foot piece of clothesline in the glove compartment, and the engagement ring in the car. (italics mine)
What was that all about? Why tell us all this? Chekhov’s gun says there has to be a reason… a good one.
So I was a little suspicious of the story. And then, I came to the last line… and the whole story changed. You see you think the story is one thing, then you think it’s another – and with the simple, final sentence it all changes, radically, for the last time.
After they have talked and read the suicide note, Sunny, almost as an afterthought, says:
“What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?”
And there it is.
Zachary wasn’t simply an awkward, misunderstood teenager… he was a killer. He didn’t propose to Sunny because he loved her (though he certainly did) – he was trying to get her into his car so he could kill her. When he failed, he went to see Tobias Shanks, his other love, and tried the same thing with him. Only then, with his homicidal needs frustrated, did he then off himself.
And the girl knew it. Sunny didn’t change her life after high school because of guilt over her rejection of Zachary. She was devastated because of the realization of how close she came to evil, how near she was to being an innocent murder victim, how thin that membrane that protects us really is.
Now… that is a story.
The funny thing is, reading what other folks thought about the tale, nobody else seemed to get it.
Here’s an analysis that is confused by the clothesline and the final line – the most important part of the story.
The clothesline is a symbol whose meaning is up for interpretation because the story does not give it a definite role. It could have been used to force Tobias or Sunny into coming with Zachary or Zachary could have planned to use it to kill himself
Here’s one that only notices the coldness of the final question (in my opinion, her detachment is her armor against the horror that lies beyond)…
Barbara Burhman’s final question in the story, “Life After High School” by Joyce Carol Oates was an appropiate closure because it is a reflection and direct unfolding of one of Barbara’s defining core characteristics and how she really truly feels about Zachary: cold-hearted indifference.
and finally, this one, simply says,
In the extract it was mentioned that Zachary had a clothesline in the glove compartment when the police found him dead in his car. It shows us that if the carbon monoxide did not work to kill him, he would have used the clothesline. It is an appropriate closure to the story because it shows Barbara and Tobias that there was nothing that they could do to save him. Zachary was determined to kill himself. I guess it shows some relief that he would have committed suicide sooner or later, if they might have saved him from the car.
Yeah, right. That’s a pretty slim reason to put that sentence in there for a writer of Oates’ skill. It’s like Chekhov included a gun so that the protagonist could have something to clean.
Am I off base here? Am I reading something into that last question that isn’t there? Is this really a tale of teenage angst, society’s rejection, and doomed love? Am I nuts to read into it a brilliant subtext of homicide and madness?
I don’t think so.
What do you think? – That’s assuming you do.