Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Type of Love Story

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 12.

Today’s story is a love story. Well, sort of. It’s a “type” of love story, and the tweezered noun is necessary. I’m talking about Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.” It’s part of that book I keep referring to, Contemporary Fiction. You can find it here. I read this story for the first time a few weeks ago, but I’ll refer to it now because what I read today didn’t make it to the “generally liked” threshold. I appreciated “Sarah Cole” right after reading it, true, but it’s the weeks that have passed that have made me really fond of it. I have found myself thinking often about the subtle cruelty of the tale, and about the ease with which it’s narrated.

There were two chronologies to the story, mingling with each other. One is set in the narrator’s present, ten years after the incident with Sarah Cole. The other takes place when the narrator is twenty-eight; at that time, the incident with Sarah Cole happened over a period of three months or so.

The narrator (Ron) says he was spectacularly handsome when the incident took place, and Sarah Cole was stunningly unbeautiful; he speaks of her homeliness, in this sense of the word, all the time. She had a mess of a life, juggling three children from an absentee husband, and barely managing along with an undignified job packing TV Guides at a publishing house. She is, well, poor. And this makes their relationship nearly impossible. It works while they’re just staying in and making love at his apartment, but tensions build up that I can’t describe in detail without spoiling the story.

The second layer to the story is that of the narrator looking back at the events, retelling them while reflecting on them, confessing how his guilt may have distorted his story, underscoring the things he missed and the things he did notice. Probably because of his guilt, the story flips between the first and the third person, talking of Ron as if it were someone the narrator was watching. The narrator says he has written this story in order to better understand his character. I would have suggested shearing much of the present-day comments out of the story. Some musings, even if interesting in themselves, are just out of place, like this one: “Passion without desire, if it gets expressed, may in fact be a kind of rape” (62).

All in all, though, the story works. As I said, the ease of the narrative is accomplished: one feels that this narrator is really grappling with something he’s not proud of, but he’s laying it bare, denuding himself on the page. The details of the story, especially those that set off radically incompatible social classes, are well chosen and jolting. I have often remembered the utter despair Sarah Cole feels when she finds her car has been dented; for the debonair narrator, well, whatever. It’s well done.

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