Short Story of the Day – A Fight With a Cannon by Victor Hugo

A cannon that breaks its moorings suddenly becomes some strange, supernatural beast. It is a machine transformed into a monster. That short mass on wheels moves like a billiard-ball, rolls with the rolling of the ship, plunges with the pitching goes, comes, stops, seems to meditate, starts on its course again, shoots like an arrow from one end of the vessel to the other, whirls around, slips away, dodges, rears, bangs, crashes, kills, exterminates. It is a battering ram capriciously assaulting a wall. Add to this the fact that the ram is of metal, the wall of wood.

—-Victor Hugo, A Fight With a Cannon

Commemorative Air Force, Wings Over Dallas, Dallas, Texas

A FIGHT WITH A CANNON By Victor Hugo

All my life I have heard the phrase “A loose cannon” used to describe a person that, in some way or another, is dangerously out of control. Have heard it, as have you, thousands of times. I have never really thought about what it means.

Today’s short story A Fight With a Cannon by Victor Hugo explains what a loose cannon is and what it means in intricate, desperate, and horrific detail. Imagine a huge cylinder of metal, heavy and hard, on a carriage of wheels set loose unrestrained on a deck of a sailing ship on the high seas. It is a battering ram – full of random destructive motion. This is what a loose cannon is.

But what to do about it? And what to do after that? And after that? The story has the surprising solutions(s). Some people are not what they seem.  There is truly more than one kind of loose cannon.

Some helpful definitions:

Carronade – an obsolete naval gun of short barrel and large bore

Assignat – one of the notes issued as paper currency from 1789 to 1796 by the revolutionary government on the security of confiscated lands.

Chevalier – French History. the lowest title of rank in the old nobility.

Cascabel – a knoblike projection at the rear of the breech of a muzzleloading cannon.

Cross of Saint-Louis – The Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis was founded in 1693. The king would award the Cross of Saint-Louis to reward outstanding service to France. The recipient then became a “knight of Saint Louis”.

Ambuscade – an ambush.

Hammock-shroud – A poetical expression which derives its force from the fact that the bodies of sailors or other persons dying at sea are sewed up in hammocks and committed to the deep.

Short Story of the Day, The Peasant Marey, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I liked to lie like that; a sleeping man is not molested, and meanwhile one can dream and think. But I could not dream, my heart was beating uneasily, and M.’s words, “Je haïs ces brigands!” were echoing in my ears.

—–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Peasant Marey

The Wild Detectives in the Bishop Arts District.

Dallas Streetcar

Reunion Tower, taken from inside the Dallas Streetcar. On my way to Bishop Arts for a discussion of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Signs at one end (downtown) of the Dallas Streetcar

 

Starting in January of this year, every Wednesday after work I took the DART train downtown, then rode the Streetcar to the Bishop Arts district – arriving at the bookstore The Wild Detectives. I was part of a group called the DRBC (Difficult Reading Book Club) and were slogging our way through Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It was a ton of fun, and when we finished up in the summer, it was announced that the next Difficult Book was going to be a trilogy by Virginia Woolf. I thought hard about it (even bought the books) but at the end decided that I didn’t want to give up the time to criss-cross the city… plus I had my own long/difficult reading project to complete (which I’m still working on after well over a year).

Today, though, I received an email outlining the next DRBC book – The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In theory, I read that book in college, but have no memory of it (at the time I was mixing literature and writing studies with Physical Chemistry classes – and the combination almost broke me) and suspect I might have made too liberal use of the study guides. But now, I want to read it, and read it in a diverse group, and maybe get a bit more out of it.

This will start up in January… sometime. In the meantime I thought I’d do some research on the deeper meaning of Dostoevsky’s work (without reading any of The Brothers Karamazov before it’s time) and maybe brushing up on some of his shorter works.

Thus, the short story of the day:

The Peasant Marey, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

available along with a number of Dostoevsky short stories at Project Gutenberg.

Here’s an audio version, if you prefer:

This is a (on the surface) simple story of a man in a Siberian Russian prison reminiscing about a slight incident from his childhood. There is a lot there beneath the surface, however. Worth the read.

 

Short Story of the Day – Chili’s Menu, by Cormac McCarthy by Justin Tapp

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Transcendence, on the first night.

Today’s “short story” isn’t really a short story… it’s a satirical Chili’s Menu, written in the style of my (right now – though he has competition) favorite author, Cormac McCarthy.

From McSweeney’s

So, not really fiction… I’m not sure what the literary term for “literature written in the form of a fast-casual chain restaurant menu” is… whatever it is, this is it. And I enjoyed reading it.

If you don’t get where it is coming from, you haven’t read enough Cormac McCarthy. And you need to rectify that.

 

Short Story of the Day, Sticks by George Saunders

The first time I brought a date over she said: what’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

—- George Saunders, Sticks

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Conjoined, Roxy Paine

George Saunders is a writer that amazes me. If I could write like any one person I would want to write like him (though I have said the same thing about  Raymond Carver… so, well, maybe it’s a tie).

I’ve written about stories by Saunders before:

Today’s short story is a one minute piece of flash fiction that contains an entire life full of frustration and regret. It’s funny and sad, in the terrible way that only funny things can be so sad. It’s called Sticks.

 

You can read it here: Sticks, by George Saunders

In the introduction to the published version in “Story” magazine he explains how he developed the idea for the story (if you follow my link above you can find out for yourself). That short explanation is as amazing as the fiction itself. We all see things along the road, especially along our commute to work, that become part of our lives so intimately that they disappear. Still, your imagination is filled with these things and the stories they generate. Only a genius like George Saunders can imagine something so poignant and unforgettable, so buoyant and unforgivable.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Short Story of the Day – Big Blonde, by Dorothy Parker

Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men like a good sport.

—- Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde

Deep Ellum Brewing Company – Dallas Blonde

Big Blonde is considered Dorothy Parker’s best, most literary work – as opposed, I guess, to her usual stuff that is considered witty.

You can read it online here: Big Blonde at Project Gutenberg Canada. It’s still under copyright in the US, so don’t print or distribute it.

Under the thin veneer of Dorothy Parker’s signature sparkling prose – this is a very sad story of a very sad and very hapless woman.  It is a well-known work (it won the O. Henry award as the best short story of 1929) with a lot of discussion about it on the internet. A lot of modern discussion is about the story’s criticism of traditional female roles and, of course, its harrowing description of alcoholism (or at least drunkenness) and depression. It is these things in spades, but I think it is more.

Hazel Morse is a hopeless drunk that is used and abused by men – but I don’t think she is an idiot and I think she had some choices. She is depressed to the edge of suicide, but is she depressed because of her life or does she live that life because of her depression? Probably a little of both. It’s also more than a little autobiographical – though I don’t think Hazel Morse would inspire so many people after all these years as Dorothy Parker does. Hazel’s parties aren’t quite up to the intellectual quality of the Algonquin Round Table.

I have been reading a bit about how struggle gives meaning to life… to the extent that life is the struggle. A corollary of this is how having happiness as the main goal of life is a recipe for disaster. Hazel and all the people in her life seem to have moment to moment happiness as their only reason for getting out of bed in the morning and as a consequence sometimes don’t even do that. They avoid struggle at all costs and end up in a hopeless struggle against the ever-present void.

The story was written and is set in 1929 – the last year of the roaring twenties. I can’t help but think about how different the story would be if it took place a couple years later. How is the Big Blonde going to make it through the Great Depression? It’s not a pretty thought.

Here’s mud in your eye.

Short Story of the Day – Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

Many lungs are returned to the same filling station the next day, but just as many circulate to other stations when people visit neighboring districts; the lungs are all identical in appearance, smooth cylinders of aluminum, so one cannot tell whether a given lung has always stayed close to home or whether it has traveled long distances. And just as lungs are passed between persons and districts, so are news and gossip. In this way one can receive news from remote districts, even those at the very edge of the world, without needing to leave home, although I myself enjoy traveling. I have journeyed all the way to the edge of the world, and seen the solid chromium wall that extends from the ground up into the infinite sky.

—-Ted Chiang, Exhalation

Stairway to Heaven
James Suris
Steel, Paint
Art District, Dallas, Texas

There is this peculiar thrill when you read something that was written by someone so much smarter than you that you stare at the page in amazement – gobsmacked by the arrangement of letters done in a way you know you could never do.

Today’s short story:

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang from Lightspeed Magazine

Have you seen the film Arrival? If not, why not?

It’s based on Ted Chiang’s novella, The Story of Your Life – and it too is so intelligent (both the novella and the movie) that you are a better person simply by experiencing it. The world grows, if only just a little.

The only bad thing is the jealousy. I, for example, can’t do that.

Short Story of the Day – A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle by Daisy Johnson

Until Salma turned thirteen the house was just a house. It was too big for the two of them, an up-and-down warren of rooms neither of them had the compulsion to fill. She did not have friends to invite round, did not like those girls at school, their careful observations of one another, the way they moved and talked. Sometimes she wondered why her father did not bring back dates, long-legged women filling the house with the smell of bacon and eggs, wearing her father’s dressing gown and slippers, their thin lips purple from the cold. She liked to think it was because he could not imagine there being anybody other than her mother. She liked to think he thought of her by the minute, her dark hair wrapped around his fist, her angry words in the crevices of his mouth.

—-Daily Johnson, A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle

House Being Remodeled, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle by Daisy Johnson

from American Short Fiction

About the Author:

Daisy Johnson

A British novelist and short story writer. Her debut novel, Everything Under, was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and is the youngest nominee in the prize’s history. For her short-stories, she has won three awards since 2014.

About the Story:

This short coming of age tale does not end like you think it will, although you are warned… you don’t pay attention. Delicately written, fine turns of phrase conceal the evil and power beneath.

It reminds me of one of my favorite (even if it is unnecessarily twee and gimmicky) novels – House of Leaves. One of the interwoven stories is about a man that discovers that the house he lives in is a few centimeters larger on the inside than on the outside. Then all hell breaks loose.

A section of the book is used in the Poe song “Hey Pretty” (the author, Mark Z. Danielewski, is the singer, Poe’s brother).

Kyrie suggested we go for a drive in her new 2-door BMW coupe In the parking lot, we slipped into her bucket seats, Kyrie took over from there.

At nearly 90 miles per hour she zipped us up to that windy edge Known to some as Mullholland, that sinuous road running the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains Where she then proceeded to pump her vehicle in and out of turns Sometimes dropping down to 50 miles per hour, only to immediately gun it back up to 90 again Fast, slow, fast fast slow Sometime a wide turn sometimes a quick one she preferred the tighter ones The sharp controlled jerks, swinging left to right before driving back to the right

Only so she could do it all over again until after enough speed, and enough wind, and more distance than I had been prepared to expect Taking me to parts of the city I rarely think of and never visit…

I can’t remember the inane things I started babbling about then, I know it didn’t really matter, she wasn’t listening She just yanked up on the emergency brake, dropped her seat back, and told me to lie on top of her On top of those leather pants of hers, extremely expensive leather pants mind you, her hands immediately guiding mine over those soft, slightly oily folds

Positioning my fingers on the shiny metal tab, small and round, like a tear Then murmuring a murmur so inaudible that even though I could feel her lips tremble against my ear, she seemed far, far away Pinch it, she said, which I did, lightly, until she also said pull it, which I also did, gently parting the teeth, one at a time, down under and beneath, the longest unzipping of my life…

We never even kissed, or looked into each other’s eyes, our lips just Trespassed on those inner labyrinths hidden deep within our ears, Filled them with the private music of wicked words Hers in many languages, mine in the off-color of my only tongue, until as our tones shifted and our consonants spun and squealed, rabbled faster, hesitated, raced harder Syllables soon melting into groans or moans, finding purchase in new words, or old words, or made-up words Until we gathered up our heat and refused to release it, enjoying too much the dark lane which we had suddenly stumbled upon

Prayed to, carved to, not a communication really, but a channeling of our rumored desires, hers for all I know gone to black forests and wolves, mine banging back to the familiar form, that great revenant mystery I still could only hear the shape of Which in spite of our separate lusts and individual prize, still continued to drive us deeper into stranger tones, our mutual desire to keep gripping the burn Fueled by sound, hers screeching, mine… I didn’t hear mine, only hers, probably counter-pointing mine A high pitched cry, then a whisper dropping unexpectedly, to practically a bark, a grunt, whatever, no sense anymore, and suddenly no more curves either, just the straightaway

Too bad dark languages rarely survive…