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Though you can't judge a book by its cover, sometimes you can be duly warned by one. What to think of a short story collection whose jacket copy boasts of the author: "She goes right ahead and 'wastes' wonderful ideas, characters, plot twists, and resolutions on her stories when she might have stuck them away in a desk drawer to save for a bigger project, like a novel." The notion that short story characters and ideas -- if fattened up sufficiently, or left to rise like dough in some quiet corner -- can achieve novelworthy status is common in some publishing business circles. It's also fairly silly, suggesting that short stories are novels-in-training-wheels by writers too busy, inexperienced or lazy to go the 300-page distance.
Unfortunately, the jacket blurb does point to a particular weakness in Jill McCorkle's second collection of short stories. These nine tales do, in fact, feel like character sketches for novels-in-progress. Often, they apply a singular, high-concept twist to a plot too undeveloped to withstand yanking. Even more disappointing, the voice that is so enjoyable in McCorkle's novels -- a richly Southern, kaffeeklatsch drawl given to labyrinthine family histories and narrative-as-witty-gossip -- here sounds rushed and a little tinny (though often capable of great hilarity).
Take the title story, set in 1984 -- the cusp of the CD revolution -- in which a Motown-loving boomer guy who gave up a promising academic career to work in a record store worries about his future, sleeps with some women and ends up pretty much where he started off: incapable of liking Duran Duran, and OK with that. There's "Your Husband Is Cheating on Us," a cloyingly you-go-girlsy, Olivia Goldsmith-worthy rant by an "other woman" to her lover's wife, after discovering that "Mr. Big" has been cheating on them both -- with, natch, a Blockbuster-working, thigh-high boot-wearing bimbo. In the most accomplished story, "Paradise," two characters named (groan) Adam and Eve fall in love after meeting at a sprawling Southern wedding. While Adam is a Northerner who has avoided serious relationships since his parents' ugly divorce, and Eve a Southern belle who escaped small-town vistas for Atlanta, their vague conversations and personas strike no discernible spark. As protagonists in a fable about temptation, McCorkle's Adam and Eve fulfill their functions; but as people, they would be hard to pick out of a crowd.
McCorkle's prose is full of sharp, snappy moments about men and women. (Here she is on a bachelor party: "Their women smirked with what was supposed to be great wisdom about these 'boys will be boys' moments. It was as if these women had opened the cage doors and allowed their guys a little recess"). And to her credit, in nearly every story here you do want more: more character, more breadth, more background. But diatribes about the short story as a distinct literary form aside, McCorkle's material does feel somewhat wasted on these cute but shallow vignettes. -- Salon
|Final Vinyl Days||97|
|A Blinking, Spinning, Breathtaking World||133|
|Your Husband Is Cheating on Us||159|
|It's a Funeral! RSVP||173|
|The Anatomy of Man||198|
Question: One reviewer describes the characters in Final Vinyl Days as all "traveling off the beaten path." Discuss how each character is both different and yet similar to us all.
Question: As the epigraph to the novel, McCorkle uses words from Marvin Gaye's song "If I Should Die Tonight": "How many hearts have felt their world stand still?" How and why has the world "stopped" momentarily for each main character in these stories? Is it a negative or positive pause?
Question: What role do songs play in each story?
Question: How is "Paradise" a satire of love, romance, and the Garden of Eden? What is McCorkle suggesting about the possibilities of finding eternal love in our modern society?
Question: Discuss Tina and Twyla in "Last Request" as alter egos; that is, how are they reverse images of each other?
Question: How do dirty and clean laundry work symbolically in "Last Request"?
Question: In "Life Prerecorded," how are Mrs. Porter's fears about pregnancy and child-rearing related to her bigger fears about being an adult and mother?
Question: How and why does the narrator in "Final Vinyl Days" sabotage his own chances at happiness?
Question: How is the narrator in "Dysfunction 101" creating a "primer" for happiness? What is her "plan" to avoid dysfunction in her own life and the lives of Mary Edna's children?
Question: Discuss the importance of a mother figure in the life of a young girl in "Dysfunction 101" creating a "primer" for happiness? What is her "plan" to avoid dysfunction in her own life and the lives of Mary Edna's children?
Question: Discuss the significance of the title "A Blinking, Spinning, Breathtaking World." Why does Charlotte feel the need to control every aspect of her life at this point in time?
Question: How do references to Alice in Wonderland relate to what Charlotte is experiencing in her life in "A Blinking, Spinning, Breathtaking World"?
Question: Is "Your Husband Is Cheating on Us" a feminist story? How is the story ironic? Consider how the story would be different if it were narrated from the wife's point of view or the new mistress's point of view.
Question: Discuss McCorkle's combination of comedy and tragedy in such stories as "It's a Funeral! RSVP" in light of these words by George Bernard Shaw: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
Question: Discuss the various conflicts the pastor is exploring in "The Anatomy of Man." How does his final "vision" help him resolve some of those conflicts?
Question: Discuss the pastor's seemingly mystical abilities in comparison to his uncle's. Why is society more willing to accept the pastor's abilities while the uncle was sent away to an institution for displaying the same?