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Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Perfect Day for Bananafish — by J.D. Salinger — first published in the New Yorker, January 1948

photo by Serge Meiki

photo by Serge Meiki

What story could be so perfect that The New Yorker would offer a contract of first refusal to an unknown young writer? On receiving this submission, the New Yorker turned around to Salinger and demanded that they have the right to see any other short story Salinger wrote before anyone else could look at it. Well, that might be true, but the story, Bananafish they accepted still had to undergo a year of revisions before it came out in its final form. It was this story however that introduced as Salinger as a writer that couldn’t be ignored.
By the way, if you’re frantically browsing a fishing website trying to work out what a bananafish actually is, you’ll have to rely on the description given in the story by Seymour, a soldier returned from World War II. According to him, they are “very ordinary-looking fish” but when they swim into a hole where there’s lots of bananas, they act like pigs and eat them all. So all you can do is trust him that such things exist.
Thousands of young men left for World War II and more than a few were broken on return. Bananafish is a short, short story, and starts with Muriel speaking to her mother long distance from a hotel. She and Seymour, her husband back from the war, are spending time on the coast. Muriel’s mother is concerned, a number of incidents are alluded to, such as Seymour driving a car at the trees on the side of the road, but since the pair have left Muriel’s parents house, there have been no more incidents, and Seymour just spends his time lying on the beach.
Outside, Seymour is lying on the sand. A five year old girl staying at the hotel comes up, and the two go out into the ocean. He speaks of the peculiar bananafish, and the girl is convinced she sees one swimming by in the ocean. At this stage, it’s probably better you go out and find a copy and read the ending. It does end with an intensity that Salinger exhibits in his other work.
Sometimes it’s impossible to separate an artist from his or her back story. Would Vincent Van Gogh capture the imagination as much if he lived to 80 in a small house in the French countryside? If he hadn’t cut off his ear, but had a wife and six children? Salinger’s output was slight. He was hailed as a genius after the release of Catcher in the Rye, one that he only exacerbated by the bizarre lengths he took to avoid the spotlight. He provided the public the definition of a reclusive author, and the more he did to avoid his fans and reporters, the more he intrigued them.
Salinger himself went to war, and whatever underlying anxieties he had were not helped by having to see action at the front. The alienation he felt on return is apparent through this story. Seymour can no longer relate to normal society. But if the character is anything like Salinger, he couldn’t relate to begin with. It is fascinating to see a literate, intelligent, young man express through his writing his inner world, one that comes across in his writings far better than any clinical description of how he might be feeling.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Burning Chrome – by William Gibson – from the collection: Burning Chrome

servers by hisperati

servers by hisperati

I remember back in my computer studies class in high school, my teacher repeatedly showed us the movie, Sneakers starring Robert Redford and River Phoenix. Perhaps she was hoping to inspire one of us to try and hack into the Pentagon, get caught and get our small country town on the 6 o’clock news. As far as I know, none of my classmates managed to force their way into a high security system. That movie however has always remained with me, so when I was reading Burning Chrome, all the images of cracking systems came flowing back.
Burning Chrome is famous, at least in sci fi circles for introducing the word ‘cyberspace’ into the lexicon. I would think that it would be one of the greatest achievements of a writer to create a phrase that enters popular parlance, but Gibson seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards the term. I guess the problem is that writers don’t get to pick and chose what is remembered of theirs, he describes it as a term that is ‘evocative and essentially meaningless’. Since he coined it however, much has been made of the phrase.
In the short story, Burning Chrome, two computer hackers, Bobby and Automatic Jack are going for one last big score, one that can net them enough money to allow at least Bobby, to retire. They hope to intercept the electronic transfers of Chrome, a hacker who works for the mafia and launders their finances. To do so, Automatic Jack uses a stolen Russian military code breaker and the two of them go into the matrix and penetrate the defences of Chrome’s computer systems.
There is a subplot about Rikki, a girl that Bobby is seeing but Automatic Jack secretly loves, and it gives the story weight and poignancy. But what I love about the tale is the description of the physical space of the internet. The two hackers being immersed in a world of the cyber attack. They flow through walls of encryption and ward off deadly online attacks, in order to slip inside the defences of the network. The story is an evocative travelogue through pillars of information and computer networks. Part of it is the imagining of a future that is still distant, but one that still holds probability.
If there ever been a popular and well received movie made from a William Gibson novel, I’m sure we would have watched that also in my computer studies class. Unfortunately, any attempts to adapt his works into film seemed to have been doomed to failure, a la Johnny Mnemonic. However, Gibson will be remembered for his contributions to science fiction, even if people who use the term cyberspace, have no idea where it comes from.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The Handsomest Drowned Man In the World – by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – published in 1968

Aran Islands cliffs by Tiara Scott

photo by Tiara Scott

Finally a Gabriel Garcia Marquez post! I have been searching for the right story to put up here for some time. My local libraries have shelves groaning with books by Garcia Marquez but they are only his novels. I had been trying to find a story for this blog, when I was speaking to an individual whose opinion I greatly respect, who out of the blue, told me that The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World was his favourite short story – ever.  This from an individual who can quote literature in an everyday conversation like he was talking about the football scores on the weekend.

“Ever” is a statement that holds weight. I wouldn’t be able to state my favourite short story ever, this blog has so many of my favourites I couldn’t elevated one over the others. Yet, I certainly have a favourite album (Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles) that always stands out, so I can understand that someone can have a favourite something. (On a side note, if you, gentle reader have a favourite short story – ever, can you let me know in the comments below? I’d be curious to know if someone else had a favourite short story that could never be surmounted.)

I raced out and located a copy of The Handsomest Drowned Man In the World. I wasn’t disappointed, as it was the kind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez story that I was looking for. One that seemed to characterise the blending of fictitious reality with a hint of the supernatural. It is a particularly beautiful story though and quite inspiring.

A drowned body washes up on the beach on the coast near a small fishing village. The dead man is not known to anyone in the village of 20 houses, so the men go off to the neighbouring villages to see if anyone is missing. Meanwhile the women ready the man for a proper sea burial. They find the man is massive, taller than anyone in the village. No shirt will fit him, nor no trousers so they have to sew him clothes. Even in death he is the handsomest man they have even seen. They dub him Esteban.

When it is time to take him into the sea, the women try to disrupt the process to keep the drowned man with the village as long as possible. The men of the village are confused, but when the man’s face is revealed they do realise how special the drowned man is to them.

The village holds a splendid funeral for Esteban and adopt him into the collective memory of the village.  They plant flowers on the cliff where they threw the body from, and it becomes a sight to all sea farers going past.

The short story is a pageant to beauty, timeless against the ravages of the earth. It is mystical in a way that can’t be prescribed to some existing fairy tale tradition or religion. A story where the hero begins dead but manages to outlast everyone else.  This story is a type of poetry.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2012 in Garcia Marquez, Gabriel