This short story hovers around 800 words and manages to destroy me each time I read it. It’s hard to talk about a short story without any spoilers but let’s just say Janet Frame’s stories are a masterclass in everything a short story could do. Like Paley, she travels in time, and like Paley she is here painting a picture both of a child’s relationship – during childhood and looking back as an adult – with her parents, and imagining the parents’ marriage, using the apparently small and specific to tackle the largest issues, from love and death to war and government. I use this short short story in workshops, cutting it up and handing around only one piece at a time, to give students a sense of how a writer sets up expectations and then both fulfils and subverts them brilliantly. And, of course, how few words it can take to do this.
First published in Between My Father And The King: New and Collected Stories (Counterpoint, 2013), and available to read online here
The New Zealand author Janet Frame is best known for the autobiographical trilogy published as An Angel at my Table, and the subsequent film by Jane Campion. It was Frame’s stories and novels, though, which would prove a lifeline and her way out of rural poverty, family tragedy and mental instability. Frame was frequently admitted to psychiatric hospitals in her 20s and underwent electroconvulsive therapy following a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She was scheduled for a lobotomy, which was cancelled when, in 1951, her dreamlike first collection of fiction,The Lagoon, won one of NZ’s most prestigious literary awards, an almost unbelievably fated intervention. In this story, found among Frame’s papers after her death, a screening of the Marx Brothers’ classic film parallels the humdrum yet surreal routine of the residents of Park Lane Hospital, where ‘the weeks had no name, nor the months, nor the years’.
(Published posthumously in the New Yorker, 2008. Available online)