BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD: two great stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Kelly Link

I picked up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 volume and was blown away by the first two stories I read (both of which were among the three faves chosen and written briefly about by the volume’s editors).

Deborah Eisenberg describes her “Your Duck is My Duck” as being about “the ravages of climate change, including the growing populations of climate refugees; the worldwide plight of the embattled and looted middle class; the co-option and trivialization of art; and the relationships — especially in regard to the use of resources — between the middle class, the looters, the artists, and the new wretched of the earth.” It is narrated by a painter who hates her day job in a photo studio, and thinks she might get let go anyway; she is complaining at a party to a wealthy acquaintance of hers, Christa, who invites her to join her and her financier husband at their “beach place.”  This turns out to be somewhere in the tropics, where the painter is set up in a lavish guest house with another visiting artist, an avant-garde puppeteer who puts on a show about a revolution against a king and queen and the brutal subsequent repression of the revolt by the generals:

There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons — serfs, bats, and donkeys – linked by heavy chains.  The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.

In the awkward moment after the first act, the host, Christa, comments hilariously, “We love to have artists working here.  It’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation.”  Meanwhile, outside the estate, the island is collapsing from flooding and can no longer support the local residents, who are attempting to flee.  The story is an allegory of artists today who experience themselves as “serfs” to the wealthy, whom they are expected “to entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer.”  It reminded me a bit of Eisenberg’s husband’s Wally Shawn’s blackly satirical plays.  Completely great!

And I also found amazing the Kelly Link story “the Summer People.” It’s a fairy tale with Alice in Wonderland qualities narrated by a teenage girl whose father has abandoned her, very sick with the flu, to their family’s job as caretakers for “the summer people,” who turn out not to be human.  They are never quite seen directly, but are experienced via the strange, enchanting, sometimes malevolent toys and devices they construct.  They live in a house that is marked with signs offering cryptic advice: “BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.”

There was a sea serpent made of tubing and metal rings that swam endlessly in a circle. There was a sluggish river, too, closer to the door, that ran red and stank and stained the banks.  The summer people were always setting up miniature bridges over it, then blowing the bridges up.

Come to think of it, the “summer people” have a certain amount in common with the wealthy “looters” of Eisenberg’s story, although their motives and character are harder to assess.  They are figures of imagination and creativity: “They make things.  That’s what my mamma called them, makers.  They give away things.  Like the toys. They like children.  When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”  But they can clearly do harm to those who fail to follow the rules of the house, who may disappear or find themselves transformed.

It is seriously creepy and magical!  I have been curious about Kelly Link, and definitely need to read some more of his her stuff (just picked up Magic for Beginners).

Now I need to read some of the other stories in the collection, although I will be surprised if they can match these two.

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