Thursday, July 29, 2010

Short-a-Day: Russell Banks's, "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story" (1985)

From The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 99.

The nice thing about anthologies--especially those that pull from a long range of time (in this case, 37 years) is that they've already culled from all the published stories out there, so while you still may happen upon styles that you dislike, you're at least seeing the emblematic versions of those tales, the best of your worst, so to speak. What Banks's story illustrates best is the choice of narrative person, and he vacillates from the first to the third in his attempt to quantify and explain his own personal type of love, a love that he was unable to recognize at first and which still, to be frank, confuses him (as it does all of us), and which he must therefore distance himself from in order to describe. He, of course, still fails, but like Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," it's in the failing that he really succeeds.

Here's the opening: "To begin, then, here is a scene in which I am the man and my friend Sarah Cole is the woman. I don't mind describing it now, because I'm a decade older and don't look the same now as I did then, and Sarah is dead." He goes on, in this casual way, to introduce the scene, clarifying that the story is timeless and placeless, though since it's his story, you might as well know that it takes place in Concord, New Hampshire, "a place I happen to know well and can therefore describe with sufficient detail to make the story believable." This is not only a comic device, this overt expression of what is generally a tactic agreement with the reader, but one which somehow makes everything seem even truer--an important fact, since he describes himself as extremely handsome, and Sarah as the homeliest person he's ever known. ("Personally, I mean. I've seen a few women who were more unattractive than Sarah, but they were clearly freaks of nature or had been badly injured or had been victimized by some grotesque, disfiguring disease.") Also, from what we can tell of this man's voice--his whole shifting, impermanent attitude--we believe that he might actually have been Sarah's lover; moreover, we believe that he might actually have loved her.

And here's what sells that:

He is not hallucinating, he clearly sees what is before him and admits--no, he asserts--to himself that he is speaking to the most unattractive woman he has ever seen, a fact which fascinates him, as if instead he were speaking to the most beautiful woman he has ever seen or perhaps ever will see, so he treasures the moment, attempts to hold it as if it were a golden ball, a disproportionately heavy object which--if he doesn't hold it lightly yet with precision and firmness--will slip from his hand and roll down across the lawn to the lip of the well and down, down to the bottom of the well, lost to him forever.
It's a weird reason to be attracted to someone, sure, but that's the funny thing about perception. Consider Shallow Hal. Twilight Zone's "The Eye of the Beholder." Or the purpose of commercials and the media. No wonder our narrator needs to become "Ron" in order to sort things out: "I'm still the man in this story, and Sarah is still the woman, but I'm telling it this way because what I have to tell you now confuses me, embarrasses me, and makes me sad, and consequently, I'm likely to tell it falsely." The story also picks up points for not having the two sleep together immediately: Banks breaks the story up into numbered chapters, and they spend three of them simply having awkward encounters at each other's apartments, aware enough of the aesthetic difference between them to hold back.

Once they've slept together--"two naked members of the same species, a male and a female, the male somewhat younger and less scarred than the female, the female somewhat less delicately constructed than the male, both individuals pale-skinned with dark thatches of hair in the area of their genitals"--their relation changes. She wants him to appear in public with her; he acquiesces, but only around her friends, since he's a lawyer and prefers to keep his life private to his co-workers. What do we learn? That they don't actually look that different, but that they do actually think differently: they have different characters, and that's what's important. That's what leads Ron, who is distant and a loner and just happens to be attractive, to break up with her, abruptly, and at the very end, as he calls her names--like a master trying to ditch a puppy for its own good--he realizes that he's beatifying her, making her into a saint.

It's a rich story, one that shows the best sort of love that some people are capable, and which goes a long way to explaining why some people remain alone, and why some people marry, regardless of appearance. It's simultaneously hopeful and depressing, which to me is the mark of a good story. It also clarifies why I read fiction in the first place: "Character is fate, which suggests that if a man can know and then to some degree control his character, he can know and to that same degree control his fate." In other words, by recognizing the pieces of ourselves that exist in art, we can learn the unconscious truths about our own leanings and hopefully take command of them. What more could I ask of a story?

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