Short Essay on the Short Stories of Jane Bowles
My first contact with the short story as a form came when I was too young to be reading adult books, but too voracious to settle for children’s literature. My mother had books that had belonged to her mother, sad, dusty green hardbacks, shipwrecked from some fancy finishing school or junior league book club of the early 20th century. I was appalled by these books, and felt sorry for my mother and grandmother, their books so obviously dull and nourishing, staid and in good taste. Nevertheless I sometimes took these sets down, as if to prove my superiority over their pages. Surely my era was faster, flashier, and more fun. When my mother was a teenager, she had been forbidden to wear shorts, though she lived in the steamy South. My grandmother, my mother told me, had often had only a single dime in her purse. She sold Persian kittens door to door during the Depression. The men in my family had terrible names, Dick and Broke. I sensed that the women lived in their gloomy shadow, eking pleasure out of music and literature when their husbands or fathers were distracted. But only a thin, doomed pleasure could have come out of these upright spines reeking of dust. Taking these books off the shelf dipped me into this earlier world of oppression. One was a collection of world famous short stories, the world’s best short stories, something like that. I read “The Fly,” by Katherine Mansfield, in which two men talk briefly, then the older one drips ink onto a housefly until it dies. Over the space of a few pages, the most intense action is the fly washing itself, rubbing its tiny legs over its face. I experienced a lurch of some unknown emotion, and was troubled. I complained to my mother about the story. Nothing happened, I said. Sometimes, she answered, that’s the point of a short story: nothing happens.
My mother was wrong in many things, if not most things, and was not even exactly well intentioned. I must have felt, at age ten or so, that something horrible had transpired over the space of these paragraphs of fly drowning. I couldn’t say what it was, but felt the immense compression of emotion, the non-human face of the insect standing in for a generation of youths destroyed by stupid, cruel men. I would not have been able to understand the context of Mansfield’s story, which concerns the aftermath of World War I. Even without the historical background Mansfield’s contemporaries would have easily understood, her story affects its reader through its use of scale. Something minor stands in for an immensity. I should have said to my mother, nothing happened and yet I feel so awful. It was never good to talk about feelings, though. That was only a form of complaining, of weakness, of making trouble for others.
Jane Bowles published only a handful of short stories. Her thin volume Plain Pleasures came out in 1966, as part of a collected works that included her novel Two Serious Ladies. Her stories, though they concern the straitened lives of women of my mother’s generation, read as remarkably undated, and as curious and wild to me today as when I first read them in the 1980s. Her characters are often constricted socially, fitting poorly into the world, and uneasy with themselves. The plots move in a series of minor battles between those who are recklessly confident and those who are paralyzed by their own weakness. No one understands anyone else, but all move like cardboard cut-outs, strategically placing themselves in response to hidden threats. In the title story, a woman and her male neighbor have lived near each other for years and never spoken, but end up having dinner together at a restaurant. The man is so tongue-tied that when he finally speaks, he more or less proposes marriage. He is one of the weak ones, and “it was not usually in his nature to make any effort to try to get what he wanted.” The woman trounces him, sneering that he must want “a lady to mash your potatoes for you three times a day.” She won’t be tricked by his interest in her, and takes herself off to the upper floor of the restaurant and never comes back. Bowles’ characters move impulsively and violently, often telling themselves that they don’t know what they are doing. One of a pair of daughters in “A Guatemalan Idyll” comes across her mother’s corset in their hotel room, and promptly takes it out to the courtyard and throws it in the fountain. When it is found, sodden, bobbing in the muck, it drains all the mother’s strength. From this catastrophe, the mother rises victorious and seduces a bumbling American tourist. Her passion for him is as inexplicable as her daughter’s impetuous prank. Everyone is at odds with their own motives, and so they move in sudden, strange ways, ricocheting off each other.
“Camp Cataract” is the longest and most developed of the volume. One woman, Harriet, has escaped the apartment she shares with her sisters Sadie, Evie, and Evie’s husband. Her fits of nerves give her a medical excuse to spend time away at a resort in the Catskills, Camp Cataract. Sadie, the unmarried one, won’t be left behind, and shows up unannounced at Camp Cataract either to run off with Harriet or to drag Harriet home. Sadie is herself unclear what she wants. Harriet’s plan is to prevent Sadie from speaking to her. She fends her off in various ways, defending her own victory over the terrible constriction of the shared apartment. Like Mansfield’s story, the limited action could be said to be standing in for some bigger, more cataclysmic history. But where Mansfield’s story is mannered and symbolic, Bowles thrashes around in the nasty tentacles of patriarchy. Her women are barely capable of entering a souvenir shop without panic, but they have the force and passion of generals. Their huge ambitions and terrible failures catapult them across their limited spheres of influence. Their absurdity drags a cruel mirror in front of a society that has written off its female members as erratic and incapable.
Bowles’ stories are almost too painful to read, and have to be taken in small doses. Shame, folly, courage and rage give them an unmatched emotional amplitude. This seems to be the core of the short story form, to pack as much as possible into something that can be read in one sitting. My mom said nothing happens, but in fact a lot can happen, in many dimensions, in both the inner and outer worlds of the character and of the reader. The violent messiness of a Bowles story stirs up trouble and outrage within the little velvet bag of its pages. I think it may be our salvation to remember and recognize women of the past, who outlined so powerfully the circumscriptions of their secondary status. Though we’ve given up gloves and hats, and divorced the Dicks and Brokes, we’re not all that much better off now. Bowles reads as remarkably current, and a necessary voice for all who struggle today.
Angela Woodward is the author of the novel Natural Wonders, winner of the Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Her other works include Origins and Other Stories, winner of the Collagist Magazine prose chapbook competition, the collection The Human Mind, and the novel End of the Fire Cult. Her short fiction has won a Pushcart Prize (2016) and been included in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web collection (2010). Her work has won statewide awards from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the Illinois Arts Council. The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland granted her an Emerging Writers Fellowship in 2011. She was a resident artist at the Bali Purnati Center for Arts in 2014. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.