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Laments for the Living

Laments for the Living - Dorothy Parker This was one of those generous gifts that I’ve felt really bad about not reading immediately upon opening. Elizabeth sent this to me a year or two ago, and I knew right away what a lovely present it was because it is one of those beautiful, old hardcovers with worn pages and soft binding, and it was a book by a woman author I had never read but always wanted to read. It definitely fulfilled all its promise.

The early stories in this collection are funnier and maybe more quippy, maybe just lighter, than the later stories, but all of them have something of a sad-clown melancholy to balance out the humor. The earlier stories are like episodes of Sex and the City turned cynical. The later stories are actually kind of sad and disturbing in a smart way.

This is a digression that is ultimately relevant to this book of stories, so bear with me. I was talking about Eudora Welty with a friend yesterday because of my feeling of ambivalence about the way she addresses race. It looks like last week, They (I forget who, but presumably The Powers that Be) released the original version of Welty’s story “Where is the Voice Coming From?”, the story she wrote after the shooting of Medgar Evers, in which she chose to write from the perspective of the shooter. This newly released version uses the actual names and places of the shooting, which were originally edited out so publishing the story wouldn’t interfere with prosecuting the shooter.

I think it is very difficult to write from the perspective of a monster very effectively, without merely providing a platform for the monster. Initially, the story just strikes me as racist in giving voice to the racist ideas of the man who shot Medgar Evers. I understand, though, that there are differing perspectives on that, and that all of the articles about it and interviews with Welty say that she wrote it because of her anger over the shooting.

So, then, I wonder if it is more that I think she was ineffective in vilifying the shooter than I am worried that it shows her perspective on race. While we were talking about the race issue, my friend asked me if I thought Nabokov is a pedophile because of Lolita. I don’t really have an opinion about that because I can’t get past the first sentence, I find it so vile. But, at the same time, Ceridwen wrote this lovely review about her appreciation of the voice of the monster in that book. And, then, I think Caris wrote the voice of a monster so perfectly, and so smartly, in [b:The Egg Said Nothing|7530665|The Egg Said Nothing|Caris O'Malley|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1288117686s/7530665.jpg|9773824]. Perfectly. And Dostoyevsky nails it, too, in [b:Notes from the Underground|17881|Notes from Underground & The Double|Fyodor Dostoyevsky|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1330074091s/17881.jpg|2551651].

I don’t know. What do you people think about giving voice to monsters? When a person writes, as I see it, she could write anything she chooses, and so then to choose, of all things in the world, to give voice to a monster is kind of confusing to me. But maybe I have my own monsters that I find more interesting and would write.

All of the characters in Laments for the Living were monsters in one way or another, I think, but they were hilariously written, and I did enjoy them and understand why someone would write about them. Parker is biting enough in her writing of them that I never felt she was endorsing the shallowness or cruelty, but she also seemed to lend value to the humanity in the characters. Like, they are human, too, but please don’t do this. Please, don’t be these people.

The second-to-last story in this collection is almost completely a monologue of this woman who is embarrassingly self-conscious of her own attempt to not be racist. It was very perfect in its cringe-worthiness. She can’t stop talking about people’s race and congratulating herself on her own ability to disregard race. It was pretty funny. I was thinking about the Welty story anyway, before I read Parker’s “Arrangement in Black and White,” so the comparison was ready for me, whether or not it is fair. Parker and Welty were contemporaries, though Parker was a little bit older. And if both were attempting to vilify racism through satirizing its proponents, I just find Parker more successful. I think Parker caught its awkwardness and stupidity, where Welty’s story did more to give voice to racism. Overt racism is shocking, but only to people who don’t support racism. So, nationally publishing the voice of a racist seems only satirical or critical to the extent that people already don’t agree with it. For an audience who agrees with it, it seems less effective as a critique. And racism is not so rare, in my view, that most people don’t already know what it looks like, not to mention that we might all be better off ignorant of what it looks like.

Satire is probably just difficult because it can so often be mistaken for earnestness and have the opposite of its intended effect. And, Parker’s stories can become a little tinny in the obviousness of the satire, so I understand why authors like Welty would want to protect the beauty of their writing for its own sake and thereby risk sounding earnest. Anyone who is sarcastic on a regular basis has probably had the experience of having her sarcasm mistaken for seriousness, and I have been on the giving and receiving end of that mistake. It is clear from the scholarly articles and less-scholarly blog posts on the topic that I am mistaken in how I read “Where is the Voice Coming From?”, but for the life of me I can’t read the satire into it. I can’t read the non-racist purpose in it.

With Parker, the stories are less poetical, but I know what she is trying to say, and I like it.