A collection of short stories featuring themes of quiet domesticity and strong female characters, sprinkled throughout with love, humor, and early 20th century spiritualism. 1924.
I hardly know how to go about reviewing a book of short stories. For one, I hardly ever read short stories. Usually, my feelings on short stories can be easily summarized: If I like the story, my enjoyment of it is limited by the knowledge that it will be ending as soon as I really get settled into it. And if it I don’t like the story, well, what’s the point, anyway? Unless it’s a traumatizing story (like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “The Lottery”), those 10-ish pages of story are hardly likely to leave an impression on me.
These short stories were different. The first story caught me with its deliciously clever opening sentence (see above photo). Ah yes, the antithesis of the prodigal child!
But that, I’m learning, is a trademark of Susan Ertz’s writing in general: eloquent, well phrased points—with just a touch of edginess. Her style was easily one of the things I liked best about After Noon, and here it was again in The Wind of Complication.
Anyways, back to that opening story. It’s about a son whose mother worries over his future and that his brothers scoff at his lack of ambition and (apparent) lack of talent. All he seems to want to do is loll about, spending the morning putting burrs all over his coat just for the sake of, well, putting burrs all over his coat. (Yes, he really does this.)
The mother and son pair continue like this for a while, no change seemingly in sight. Then, one day, the mother is inspired to write some poetry, as in the past she considered writing but put it aside to manage the household. She impulsively writes a poem, submits it to a magazine, and, much to her surprise, it gets published! That’s when she gets her idea, born out of a longing that her son find his place in life: what if she were to continue publishing poems, but under his name instead of hers?
So this is what she does, without telling her son she’s doing it. But eventually she must tell him, as the poetry’s audience grows and his siblings and people in the village have started to admire “his” work. Her son does not mind she’s been publishing under his name. On the contrary: he begins responding to people’s admiration, taking all the credit, even submitting poetry on his own, without his mother’s knowledge! And the great thing is it’s awful, awful poetry (by my standards, and certainly Ertz’s and the mother’s), that morbid, un-rhyming, modernist stuff that was probably coming into fashion at the time.
I was definitely squirming in my seat by this point. I loved the story, I was quite interested to see how it would turn out…but how was this going to fill this whole big book, exactly?
Well, of course, it doesn’t, because it’s a book of short stories, not a novel. But going into the experience, I thought I was getting a novel. So when I turned the last page on that story and found a new story awaiting me, with a title and new characters and all, I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep reading, even though I was hoping for more of this mother-son duo, and generally speaking I don’t even like short stories?
Rather than making a decision, I just took a breath, attempted to clear my mind of the last story, and slid into the next. As it turned out, yes, it was that easy.
What I found most amazing about this reading experience was that each of Ertz’s short stories felt complete in and of itself. Unlike contemporary short stories, which I finish and ask myself “Um, what was the point of that?” every single one of these stories felt like it had meaning.
In “Henry and the muse,” I felt like Ertz was cautioning, in a humorous way, that our children don’t necessarily walk the same path we point them toward. Another great story, “Just little things,” it about a woman who decides to leave her husband because she can no longer stand his various annoying little habits. She goes off with her lover, only to discover that he has his own little things, and moreover he doesn’t know (or cater to) her own little things. Between the title and the story—again, so smartly told, honest but never mean—I felt like Ertz was saying that all of life is composed of people’s “little things.”
But though the competition was impressive, I came away from the collection with a clear favorite story. “Relativity and Major Rooke” tells the story of a middle-aged bachelor, a retired officer, who by chance comes across this lovely single woman of his age. They attend a lecture together on the subject of the universe. Major Rooke, in the midst of humble designs on his female companion, gets stuck on the speaker’s main point: that the universe is huge, the earth is tiny, and the people on it, well, they are so minuscule they might as well not even exist.
This harsh perspective undermines all of the Major’s faint hopes toward the woman. He decides she couldn’t possibly be interested in insignificant little him, so he backs off. She is confused, just as lonely at heart as he is. He even tries to nudge her toward a friend of his, a scholarly man who obviously thinks very highly of himself, whom the Major sees as a better prospect for the charming woman.
I absolutely loved the way in which Ertz set everything right again in this story. I loved her message, the lesson the Major had to learn for himself: all of life is an assembly of “private and personal phenomena.” These phenomena, moreover, are the entire universe to those who are experiencing them. “Private and personal phenomena” is indeed not only the stuff of life, but the stuff of literature.
I ended up loving and treasuring every single story in this collection. Each one was satisfying, like I’d read all there was to the story, rather than just witnessing a snapshot of characters and places. Looking back, I think this is because each of the stories is about a major “crisis” in the characters’ lives, the event that all their earlier life has been leading up to, the event that will set the course for the remainder.
I’d recommend these stories for anyone who enjoys finding a deeper meaning in the stories they read. Also, the stories commonly feature strong female characters, and often contrast American and British viewpoints, a dynamic common to Ertz’s work. Many of the stories play out around themes of “spiritualism,” too. I was interested in the history lesson it provided (seances, fate vs. free will discussion, and so forth), along with the depth it lent the stories. I’ve noticed this interest in spiritualism from Ertz’s other work, and I’ll continue to look for it as I discover (read: DEVOUR) more of her work.