"Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories" by Christine Sneed
In a number of these sophisticated stories, Sneed takes readers to places they might not have been before and gives them the feel of authentic experience
Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 152 pages, $24.95
Why do you want to take your precious time and give yourself over to the first collection of short fiction by a relatively unknown Chicago writer Christine Sneed? (Especially when it comes in a volume with type almost too small for normal human eyes to perceive?)
Because in a number of these sophisticated stories she takes you to places you might not have been before and gives them the feel of authentic experience, which is to say, gives us stories that become part of our public memory. That's what all good fiction does, I think. It gives us the memory of our culture, as writers have conjured it up, and extends our lives in terms of years as well as geographically and psychologically, if not in actual physical longevity. If you think I've said something quite silly, stop reading now, please. But if you have the sense, as I do, that reading fiction gives you powers that approximate the strengths of at least the lower rung of the gods, keep going, because I have a recommendation for you.
Sneed writes mainly about women, young and old, women with open hearts and women who are terrifically observant of their own emotions as well as the souls of others, and in this collection offers a much wider world than most debut assemblages of a new writer's magazine stories. She carries us in to the world of art and finance, and she also does portraits of nurses and artists with equal strength, and of, in the story titled "Quality of Life", a young woman taken up by an older man, and in the story "Twelve + Twelve", an account of an older woman carrying on an affair with a younger man. In the title story age evens out a bit as a young woman, whose father, a famous artist, suffers sudden death and bequeaths to her a legacy both of artifacts and emotions. In "Alex Rice, Inc.," a community college instructor improbably encounters a famous (and devastatingly attractive) young movie actor, and tries to survive their professional relationship.
In these stories Sneed's gift for conveying sexual experiences in a sharp effective phrasing becomes quite clear. "He had worked her over for close to three hours," she writes in the title story, about the relationship between a young artist and the daughter of the famous newly deceased great artist. "Only four other men in her life had tried to do what he had done to her. One had succeeded, the others had merely thought they had." So the world of Sneed's stories widens not just in terms of the subject matter but in relation to experience. There's a freshness to lines such as I have just quoted, and there is a freshness to the points of view she employs such as I have just described.
Along with the freshness of her prose and the revelations she employs it to reveal comes a problem, however. In some of the best stories, the openings and middles resonate with emotion and insight. Only the endings seem to trail away. In the story about the movie star who takes a college class drama sparks up between him and the instructor and between his instructor and one of his body-guards. But the story ends without revelation, just some off-hand comments about halfway down the train toward insight.
In the title story, we read that the daughter of the great artist will give in to the younger artist - he wants to see the old man's sketchbooks, she hesitates about allowing him access - without ever become witness to a scene in which this occurs. "She knew she would have to show him the notebooks," Sneed writes. "With little hope, he had been waiting for this."
Am I missing something here? Could be. But maybe not. The gifted (now) almost elder statesman of the American short story, Minnesota writer Charles Baxter, suggested in an essay some time ago that perhaps we as writers - and readers - have shifted, perhaps evolved, into a state where we might now eschew the creation of epiphanic (as in suddenly revelatory) endings. "I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras," Baxter said, "but I am besotted by them - can't get enough of them in life or elsewhere..."
Sneed may be playing with this notion. Or not. Perhaps she thinks she has given us satisfactory endings, but a reader such as myself just doesn't get them. Be that as it may she offers enough in these stories to make the book attractive to anyone interested in the contemporary short story, its surprises and daring successes, and failures.