Mar 15 2020

Short Story Review: “The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess

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[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

So I got around to reading GD Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde,” a short story published by New Pop Lit this past January. It makes for interesting, but exhausting reading. The same could be said for much of Proust, some of Ulysses (1922), and the great rant by the father at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

By “interesting, but exhausting” as in Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean things like:

—Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope. Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeenwoman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugial love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures. You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III. And the gay lakin, mistress Fitton, mount and cry O, and his dainty birdsnies, lady Penelope Rich, a clean quality woman is suited for a player, and the punks of the bankside, a penny a time.

(Ulysses, IX [“Scylla and Charybdis”] )

Whether or not this kind of story-telling is your cup of tea, this kind of thing is what can be found in Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde.”

Shoptalkwise: Dess crams a lot of micro-narratives, pustulating plots and bursting conclusions in single paragraphs–but all through a well-controlled, well-modulated narrator’s voice–one neither excessively loud nor wanting in volume.

As a story, “The Bayside Blonde” is quite Aristotelian in terms of plot: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Overall, I don’t know if I “like” it per se, but it works. It doesn’t cheat readers of their time. I don’t feel “ripped off” for having taken the time to read it. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of short fiction slung around these days.

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Mar 25 2016

Readers & Writers in “Midnight’s Children”

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Readers & Writers in “Midnight’s Children”

“No audience is without its idiosyncrasies of belief.”

––Midnight’s Children, “Under the Carpet”

There were lots of things I didn’t understand about Midnight’s Children, but fairly early on, I started to see a four-way “game” emerge between me the reader, Rushdie the writer, the book’s narrator Saleem Sinai who is also a writer, and his wife Padma as another reader.

I’ve never read anything by Rushdie before, but I’ve seen some interviews. He comes off as very charming, handsome, witty, has a crisp Oxford accent, and is apparently quite the lady’s man.

Certainly there is some of Rushdie the writer in his character of the narrator-writer Saleem Sinai. And as a reader I certainly felt some impatience, early on, with the story, as does Saleem’s wife Padma Mangroli:

While I, at my desk, feel the sting of Padma’s impatience. (I wish, at times, for a more discerning audience, someone who would understand the need for rhythm, pacing, the subtle introduction of minor chords which will later rise, swell, seize the melody.) (“Methwold” 112)

And in a later passage we learn from Saleem:

I am, in fact, entirely content with the uncomplaining thews of Padma Mangroli, who is, unaccountably, more interested in me than my tales. (“Revelations” 310)

So Padma is more interested in the writer than his writings, and I think that Rushdie, as a writer and a celebrity, has experienced that often enough: people would rather meet him than read his work. After all:

In autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe. (“Revelations” 310)

Also, in terms of this story’s setting, India and Pakistan were then (and still are) very patriarchal places. I would almost argue that in Midnights Children the narrator treats the reader as he would a wife in that part of the world: I the reader am subordinate to Rushdie the writer (I can’t change the way he wrote the story or edit what he wrote about); and Padma remains the subordinate intimate of Saleem. She is also his caretaker, as readers are the caretakers of writers.

Overall, Rushdie’s style seems heavily influenced by Conrad and Faulkner, his vast vocabulary by Joyce. Rushdie the writer and his narrator Saleem the writer seem much more comfortable in their profession than the narrator-writer in Roth’s American Pastoral, who grumbles:

Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life. (“Chapter 3” 63)

Rushdie and Saleem are, furthermore, way more confident in their abilities to put pen to paper than both the narrator-writer in Roth’s American Pastoral as well as in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair:

It’s a discouraging thing, sir. The more you succeed the more glad they are to see the last of you. (II, viii, 68)

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NOTES

Greene Graham. The End of the Affair. 1951. NY: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. 1977.

Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. NY: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1997. Vintage International Edition. 1998.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children. NY: Knopf. 1981. NY: Random House Paperbacks. 2006.