In the second-to-last installment of this column, I wrote about “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp” and concluded by saying most great short story writers are sadists. Tweeting that thought garnered a few RTs and some people offering counterexamples, mainly Grace Paley, whose famous “giving characters the open destiny of life” defines the opposite view. But I believe Paley and those like her are the exception: the short story is an inherently cruel form.
The main reason for this is, well, they’re short. The open destiny of life is mainly available to characters who exist in a space capable of granting them a semblance of agency. Novels afford characters the ability to do and be more than one thing. A bad decision in a novel can have consequences for the character that allow them to react, change, make other decisions; a bad decision in a short story, is the story, more or less. Here is the definition of a short story that I give my students on the first day of Intro to Fiction Writing:
A short story describes a character in a situation that exerts pressure on them, causing them to change.
This, of course, describes a certain relatively narrow band of psychological realist fiction, but that band is what I teach, what Trevor writes, and what I’m talking about in this column. In the space of 2,00 to 8,000 words, on the outside, a short story has to, in Poe’s formulation, achieve a unified effect. And that effect, usually, is one of pain. Why? This is perhaps a question worth lingering on, and one my students often ask: why are all the stories we read depressing?
The facile answer is that life is full of pain and generally depressing—but, of course, life is also full of joy. The slightly less facile answer is simply to quote Henry de Montherlant’s famous “happiness writes in white ink on a white page.” The honest answer is to say I don’t really know, but that generally the situation exerting pressure on a character is an upsetting one. Often emotionally upsetting, yes, but almost always upsetting in the sense that the stasis of a character’s life is upset. Sometimes that stasis is an unhappy one, and the disruption is perhaps fortunate and liberating: think “Cathedral” or many Alice Munro stories. More often the disruption is traumatic, think any Richard Yates. But whether the ultimate effect is pessimistic or less pessimistic, the technique is almost always one of continued, increasing pressure applied to the unfortunate protagonist, who squirms and wriggles like a butterfly pinned to a cork board.
In her 1972 introduction for Bernard Malamud at a 92nd St. Y event, Cynthia Ozick summed up what I’m trying to say in two words: “Mercilessness clarifies.”
Trevor is a merciless writer, and in few of his stories is he more merciless than “The Ballroom of Romance,” the title story of his second collection. The title itself is shot through with cold irony—you will be, perhaps, unsurprised to learn that the titular ballroom is not actually very romantic. The Ballroom of Romance (unironically called the Ballroom of Romance in the story) is a roadside, rural Irish building where a Mr. Justin Dwyer holds dances on Saturday nights. Poor country people attend these events, including our protagonist, Bridie, who is 36 and lives on a farm with her amputee father. Bridie goes to the Ballroom of Romance looking for—not romance, exactly, but something proximate to romance, call it hope. Having visited the Ballroom of Romance for two decades, she continues out of habit, the needful habit of imagining romantic possibility, however dim and unlikely.
One of the really merciless aspects of this story is the way Trevor gives us to understand the levels of Bridie’s diminished expectations. Though she pines chastely after one of the musicians in the club, a road laborer by trade named Dano Ryan, she thinks as well about her true lost love, a boy named Patrick Grady she danced with long ago. Dano Ryan is a large and kind, if thoroughly unromantic figure, but she learns that he is going to be wed to his landlady. Even this figure of demotion is out of Bridie’s reach now, leaving her dancing with Bowser Egan. Egan is one of three bachelors—along with Tim Daly and the unforgettably named Eyes Horgan—who ritually arrive at late at the ballroom in a drunken state. Over the years, Bridie has left these dances in disappointment, settling for kissing Egan as a worthless consolation prize.
So it goes on the night of the story, but having been disabused of even the fantasy of Dano Ryan, Bridie now sees the reality of Bowser Egan, a reality she has held at bay for many years: “… in time Bowser Egan would seek her out because his mother would have died. Her father would probably have died also by then. She would marry Bowser Egan because it would be lonesome being by herself in the farmhouse.”
This is a breathtaking ending, almost shocking. Not because it’s so surprising that she has missed her chance with Ryan, or that she will marry Egan. Nor because of any linguistic fireworks—the prose, as ever with Trevor, is steady, calm, anti-pyrotechnic. But this summary appraisal, via Bridie’s own awareness, of her options, or lack thereof, moving forward, is so brutal, so merciless. It is hard to read. Bridie is a sympathetic, kind character, and we want better for her. But our readerly hope is analogous to Bridie’s romantic hope, fond foolish hopes dashed by the end of a night spent at the Ballroom of Romance.
Next week: “A Happy Family.”