Black Glass: Short Fictions

Black Glass: Short Fictions

by Karen Joy Fowler


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399175794
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/23/2015
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,292,927
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Karen Joy Fowler, a PEN/Faulkner and California Book Award winner, is the author of six novels (two of them New York Times bestsellers) and four short story collections. She has been a Dublin IMPAC nominee, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.


Davis, California

Date of Birth:

February 7, 1950

Place of Birth:

Bloomington, Indiana


B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974

Read an Excerpt

It was a Wednesday afternoon in the Senate Bar.  Schilling, the proprietor, stood behind the curved counter, stroking the shot glasses with a towel.  Every part of the bar was reflected in the mirror wall behind him: the marble and black onyx floor, the oiled cherry-wood counter, the brass bar rail.  A chandelier hung in the center of the ceiling.  Rows of cut-glass decanters filled the shelves.  Schilling ran his towel over their glass stoppers.  In the corner, on the big screen, Cher danced and sang a song for the U.S. Navy.  Schilling had the sound off.

There were three customers.  Two sat together at a table near the door.  They were businessmen.  One of them smoked.  Both of them drank.

Every time either of them picked up his glass and set it down again, he made a new wet ring on the table between them.  They were careful to keep the spreadsheet out of the water.

The third customer, a college student, sat at the bar, drinking his way through an unexpected romance with a  woman old enough to be his mother.  He'd asked Schilling to bring him three drinks at once, three different drinks--a Bloody Mary, a Sex on the Beach, a Velvet Hammer.  As a compromise, Schilling had brought him the Bloody Mary and put in a MTV tape, picture only, out of deference to the businessmen and as a matter of personal preference.

A fourth man came into the Senate Bar from the street.  A shaft of sunlight sprang into the room when the door opened and vanished when it closed.  "Give me a drink," the man said to Schilling.

Schilling glanced at the man briefly as he polished the wood bar with his sleeve.  "Get out of here."

"Give me a drink."

The man was dirty and dressed in several tattered layers, which still left a bare hole the size of a tennis ball above one knee.  He was smoking the stubby end of a cigarette.  It was not his cigarette; there was lipstick on the filter.  He had retrieved this cigarette from the sidewalk outside the bar.  "You pay your tab first," said Schilling.

"I don't have any money," said the man.  Cher closed her eyes and opened her mouth.

"Where's my Sex on the Beach?" asked the boy.

"You're disturbing my customers," Schilling told the man at the door.  "You're stinking up my bar." He reached under the counter for a bottle of gin.

"He gave me my first drink," the man at the door said to the boy at the bar.  "I used to be just like you." He took two steps into the room, leaving two gritty footprints on the black onyx.  "Finish what you started," he told Schilling.

"Get out," Schilling said.

The boy rolled a quarter down his nose and let it drop, catching it loudly in his empty Bloody Mary glass.  "Can I get another drink?" he asked.  "Am I going to get another drink?"

A second shaft of sunlight appeared in the room, collided with the mirrored wall.  Inside the sunlight, barely visible, Cher danced.

She turned her back.  Schilling heard a woman scream, and then the Cher in the mirror broke into five pieces and fell behind the counter.  The sunlight disappeared.  "Madam," said Schilling, hardly breathing, in shock.  A nightmare dressed in black stood at the door of his bar, a nightmare in the shape of an enormous postmenopausal woman.  In one hand she held a hatchet.  She reached into the bodice of her dress with the other and pulled out a large stone.  She wore a bonnet with black ribbons.

"Glory be to God!" shouted the woman.  "Peace on Earth! Goodwill to men!" She hit the big screen dead center with the rock.  The screen cracked and smoked, made spitting noises, blackened.  She took a step, swept the cigarette from the shabby man's mouth with one hand.  "Don't poison the air with your filthy gases!" she said.  Then she held her hatchet at the vertical.  She charged into the bar, clearing the counter.  Maraschino cherries and stuffed olives flew.  "Madam!" said Schilling.  He ducked.

"You purveyor and protector of obscenity!" the woman shouted.  "Has your mother ever been to this place?" The boy at the bar slipped from his stool and ran for the rear door.  In three steps the woman caught him.  She picked him up by the neck of his sweater as if he were a kitten, throwing him to his knees.  She knelt over him, singing.  "Touch not, taste not, handle not. Drink will make the dark, dark blot." He struggled, and she let him go, calling after him, "Your mother did not raise you for this!" The back door slammed.

The businessmen had taken cover under their table.  Schilling remained out of sight.  The shabby man was gone.  The woman began, methodically, with her hatchet to destroy the bar.  She punctured the decorative keg behind the counter and then, apparently disappointed to find it empty, she brought her hatchet down on the counter, severing a spigot from one of the hoses.  A fountain of soda exploded into the air.  She broke the decanters.  Pools of liquor flowed over the marble and onyx floor.  The woman's bonnet slipped to the side of her head.

Reading Group Guide

1.         Sundry genres commingle in Fowler's short fictions; identify them. What is the function of each one? How does her approach call into question traditional notions of fiction? Do you regard the blending of genres as distinctly contemporary or time-honored?

2.         One motif of the collected short stories is the seemingly ineluctable misreadings and discord that persist between the sexes. How does Fowler's handling of this theme differ from story to story? What questions or issues surface repeatedly in addressing the topic? Why does this topic lie so close to the heart of most fiction?

3.         Lady Mary Wortley Motagu suggested that satire should "like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen." Which stories in Black Glass read as satires? What about the subject is illuminated or obscured through the satirizing? Does the satire function simply as entertainment or as moral or ethical provocation?

4.         What is lost or gained when Fowler abandons realism?

5.         The narrator of "The Brew" says that "sometimes we can find a smaller world where we can live, inside the bigger world where we cannot." Which characters in Black Glass attempt to create smaller worlds for themselves? What compels the attempt? How do these fictions serve as small worlds for reader as well as author?

6.         Throughout Black Glass we hear from women often marginalized inpopular narratives of history and literature, for example, the spouses of Einstein and Gulliver. What compels such an approach? How do these voices challenge our understanding of events depicted? What does Fowler accomplish by giving voice to the once silent?

7.         Stories such as "The Elizabeth Complex, " "The View from Venus: A Case Study, " and "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" invite us to reconsider views of women proffered and perpetuated by myth and media. What do Fowler's reimaginings of traditional tales accomplish? How, collectively, do her short stories alter our perspective on women in fiction? How does literature compare to other media in shaping our perceptions of gender?

8.         At the close of the title story, Harris's wife describes her work on Carry Nation not as literature. She says, "We're trying to have an impact on the American psyche. Literature may not be the best way to do that anymore." Do you agree? Use Black Glass as evidence for your case.

9.         American pop culture figures in a number of Fowler's stories. How does she use the seemingly trivial to suggest something of import? To what extent is her fiction distinctly American? Which stories transcend time and place? How?

10.         Tonto opens "The Faithful Companion at Forty" by weighing two different theories on history: one acknowledges the individual as responsible for defining and directing change, the other cites the masses as bellwether. Most of Black Glass explores the connection between self and selves: the way we inhabit a world within as well as the one we share with others. Trace this theme throughout the collection. What conclusions can you draw?

11.         In her essay "The Value of Laughter, " Virginia Woolf suggests that "comedy represented the failings of human nature, and that tragedy pictured men as greater than they are. To paint them truly one must, it seems, strike a mean between the two, and the result is something too serious to be comic, too imperfect to be tragic, and this we may call humour." Which of Fowler's stories meet this definition of humor? How? What do they accomplish in the process?

12.         What is the significance of the collection's title? How does it relate to more than the title story?

13.         The narrator of "The View from Venus: A Case Study, " invites her students to question their perception of reality. She asks: "How do others perceive you? How do you perceive others' perceptions of this you. We are now at two removes from the objective reality... and yet for the purposes of relationships this is absolutely the closest to reality anyone can come." How do the stories of Black Glass wrestle with this riddle of perception? What limitations of understanding and expression are acknowledged? Which works depict the perils of excessive subjectivity faced when turning life into narrative?

14.         "Go Back" seems somewhat anomalous among the stories of Black Glass. Why? What, missing or present, separates it from the rest of the tales? What, nonetheless, shows its spirit as consonant with the collection?

15.         The protagonist of "Go Back" receives this advice from he mother: "Sometimes going back is better.... It only looks like you're losing when really it's the only way to win." How does this appreciation of a past explored characterize Black Glass? Which individual stories support or refute the notion? How?

16.         How does the consideration of parenthood and marriage in "The Travails" differ from that in "Lieserl"?

17.         In "The Travails, " Mary insists that her husband admit that he is haunted by the family he seldom sees: "You can never go far enough to escape. We fill your Thoughts in spite of yourself. You mold your Memories about us, as if you had been here all along." This story, like others the collection, explores both the ongoing temptation to flee and the impossibility of true flight. What prevents Fowler's characters from escaping their lives? What is the significance of the obstacles?

18.         We can also look at the above excerpt as a meditation on the extent to which our memories shape our character and direct the course of our life. What light shines through Black Glass onto this matter?

19.         In "Lieserl, " the narrator informs us that "none of this is as simple as it sounds, but one must start somewhere even though such placement inevitably entails the telling of a lie." To what extent do Fowler's stories convey the complexity of the situations they depict? How? Which stories turn to symbolism, parable, or fantasy to express or intimate complexity? Which resonate most? Why?

20.         The narrator of "Lieserl" also observes that "man fumbles about the world, perceiving nothing, understanding nothing. In a whole universe, man has been shut into a small room." How does Black Glass open the door to this small room? What is revealed?

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Black Glass: Short Fictions 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Sue5 More than 1 year ago
I found this one hard to wrap my mind around. It's out there and some one will like it just not me.