Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ms. Barton and the Vicious Short Story

I am not, by nature (with the exception of ghost and horror stories, of course), a short story reader. Occasionally, I will come across something in The New Yorker that grabs my attention, but on the whole, I shy away from the genre. I chalk this up to two things:

1. High school. Some of you have heard me say that high school nearly made a non-reader out of this voracious reader and ruined lots of great literature for me by introducing it to me at an age at which I could neither understand nor appreciate it. What did we read most in high school? Short stories. And I did not have the sorts of teachers who seemed to care about making them relevant or bringing them to life for me. (God knows how I made those As in English. Must have been my ability to BS or something.)

2. A short attention span. I know that makes no sense, but hear me out here. In order to hold my attention, I need something that invites me in and asks me to stay awhile, that entices me with interesting little details and tidbits, that lets me get to know it. Most short stories are kicking me out the door by the time I decide that, why yes, I would like another cup of tea and slice of cake, and please, tell me what happened after she left you at the train station.

Things seem to have changed this year, though. First, I read The Twilight of the Gods, got to the end of it, and found myself craving more, very disappointed that it was the only published collection of stories by Richard Garnett. Then, I decided to read Richard Yates's Collected Stories (maybe it's not short stories. Maybe it's authors named "Richard" I like), each and every one of which invited me in for tea and cake. As I drew near to its end, I went browsing our bookshelves looking for more short stories (not hard to find since I'm married to a former high school English teacher. I'm sure, if I'd had him, I would have wound up loving short stories. However, I would not be married to him, because he does not believe in teachers marrying students, even former students. So I sacrificed loving the short story in order to marry the man I love).

I pulled from those shelves Viking's The Portable Dorothy Parker. I've always enjoyed Dorothy Parker (being a fan of light verse. To hell with the critics -- critics never like anything that's truly fun, do they? After all, she was a critic, so they're criticizing one of their own, and she could write circles around most calling themselves critics today), but I hadn't read too many of her short stories. I bought this book at a library sale a few years ago after watching the movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and there it sat ever since, unread, until now (I highly recommend it. The poems and stories are great, but the most fun are her reviews. I'm in the midst of the section on plays from Vanity Fair and am laughing out loud at almost every one, a nice antidote for the depression caused by both her stories and Richard Yates's -- although her stories will make you laugh. His won't).

You can tell I'm reading Dorothy Parker (a Queen of Digression), because it's taken me this long to get to the point of this post, which is to post my thoughts on a movie, the aforementioned Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Long before I knew what a blog was (maybe even before blogs existed. I'd have to check that), I started keeping book journals where I jotted down my thoughts and feelings about every book I read. One of these days, I plan to start posting some of those "from the vault" essays, but today, since I am in the midst of reading Dorothy Parker, I thought it would be fun to post from my companion journal, the one I keep for movies and plays (which I have to admit, is not as well kept as the book journals. I often go long periods forgetting -- or being too lazy to bother -- to write about movies and plays, but I never forget a book). So, here you go:

(Note: you don't know HOW badly I wanted to edit this piece. So much of it needs to be reworded, but I've left it in its original form, word-for-word for you.)

Date: April 21, 2007
Movie: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Bob DVRed this one some time ago, thinking I might like it. Like it, I certainly did, but it was an extraordinarily disturbing movie. Poor Dorothy Parker comes off as an extremely unstable, distraught, and unhappy woman -- self-destructive in all the classic ways.

It's funny, because when Bob and I first started watching it, our comments to each other ran along these lines, "Man, wouldn't it have been so cool to have been part of the Algonquin Round Table?" "Can you imagine sitting around with all those people?" By the end of the movie, my thoughts were more like, "Thank God I've never been a part of something like that."

I'd like to know how true-to-life the movie actually was (as always, I'm led to wanting to read more: more by Dorothy Parker and more about her). I always find it so sad to discover that what I thought were a bunch of brilliant minds were really just a bunch of superficial egoists, drowning their depression in oceans of alcohol.

Of course, I never get away from accepting the fact that most brilliant minds are combined with an ultra-sensitivity that makes living in this world extremely difficult. These people often have to self medicate in order to survive. I've long since gotten away from wondering what they would have been like without the alcohol or the cocaine addiction, because I'm not so sure they could have produced what they did without their addictions.

What I found saddest about Dorothy Parker as portrayed in this movie was the fact that she was just such a typical woman trying so hard not to be a woman. Everyone else could see she was making mistakes in her relationships with men. Everyone else could see, despite her wry wit and less than flattering observations about love that she was dying to be madly in love with someone who was madly in love with her. Men were her downfall, and they were all both fascinated and somewhat repelled by her.

The movie was beautifully filmed. I loved the dark scenes of her little apartment life, the overcrowded Algonquin with all its dark wood, and the "Great-Gatsby-ish" garden party scene. I think the 1920s as portrayed in film are one of my favorite eras. I like the clothes both the men and women wore, the way everyone holds glasses with unidentified alcoholic beverages in them, and the way the men light cigarettes for women (oh, if only all that glamorous smoking with those long cigarette holders hadn't gone on to kill everyone, huh?). It must be really fun to get to dress up in that garb.

So, yet another bleak movie that's piqued my interest in picking up some bleak books. Let's see whether or not I do.
(The answer is "yes," 2 1/2 years later.)


litlove said...

I'm rather interested myself in Dorothy Parker - and would love to read her reviews, which I've never done. Nor have I seen the movie, although it sounds quite interesting (the last movie I saw was Kung Fu Panda, which says it all). But I did enjoy her short stories. A bit on the bleak and bitter side, but always well crafted and searingly insightful.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, her reviews are fantastic. You MUST read them. I'm getting quotable text from practically every single one (if only I still had the memory I had when I was 25, I might be able to give you one, as I sit here without the book in front of me). I think you'd like the movie, too -- lots and lots for you to ponder.

Stefanie said...

Ok, ok, I'll read Dorothy Parker. Sheesh. A girl can't go anywhere on the internet these days without being confronted with good books she hasn't read yet. ;)

Dorothy W. said...

Oh, cool, I'm always on the lookout for good critics and review writers. And the short stories sound good too. But I'm not much of a short story reader ... I know just what you mean about the short attention span problem.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, well, wouldn't you know it? I THINK I'm posting about a movie, and I still manage to convince people to read a book. But, really, I'm so glad, because I can't wait to hear your take on Parker.

Dorr, you'll love her, then. She's not only good; she's superb. They don't make critics like her anymore (good book bloggers like her? Well, that's another matter...)