Saturday, May 10, 2008

Harpur Palate/Sarah Domet/Louis E. Catron/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Holly Wendt

Established in 2000 as a semiannual literary magazine, Harpur Palate publishes works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry that demonstrate attention to craft, structure, language, and the story well told. Harpur Palate is produced by graduate students in English at Binghamton University and named after the University's Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and for its distinctive taste in literary fare.

We chose this piece because Domet explores and explodes the concept of the romance novel while simultaneously weaving a significant and engaging narrative into the story's metafictional bones. Her narrator's voice is selectively revealing, but charming; the reader is drawn in first by the form and its wry twist of humor, and then held by the very honest and human context of the narrator's broken marriage.

Nominated Short Story: "To Write a Romance" - Sarah Domet

Review: by Louis E. Catron

When life turns as sour as month-old milk, we can rant like King Lear on the heath; we can sit motionless like the static tramps who wait for Godot; we can follow Job’s wife’s advice to “curse God and die”; we can accept the politician’s glib advice to “move bravely forward”; or to give ourselves a perfect world—or at least a better world—and an escape from a dung heap of reality, we can use the restorative escapism of our imagination. For Sarah Domet’s protagonist, deserted by her husband, Carl, who took their infant with him—her child she did not love—the latter is the palliative device of choice. Like Anais Nin, Ms. Domet seems to believe that “dreams are necessary to life.”

Imagination is central here. Ms. Domet nicely prompts us to participate in her story, “To Write a Romance,” by stimulating our imaginations. Cleverly, she creates not one but two appeals to the imagination. First, we of course relate to her protagonist (I’ll return to this in a moment.) who is herself on a flight of fancy, and that empathically encourages us to join her imaginative journey. Secondly, we must imagine the basic situation and, more importantly, the reasons for it. Yes, Ms. Domet gives us vital clues, but she respects the reader’s intelligence and therefore doesn’t resort to flashing neon lights to direct our attention to them.

She neatly frames her story with advice to writers for writing a romance. She starts by using a quotation: Visualize your hero. Think about real men you know or have seen whose characteristics you can blend to model him. She continues to use similar quotations for transitions through her story, rather like Beethoven’s thematic chords. (Although she doesn’t cite her source, the quotations seem to be from an “eHow” website about “How to Develop a Romance Hero.”) For the reader, these instructions are vital clues. Some readers may hear echoes of Joan Wilder, the romance novelist in the 1984 film, Romancing the Stone.

Interestingly, despite the advice to think about real men, Sandy, the imaginary hero in this story, remains thin and undeveloped, more of an object to serve the protagonist than a real man. Are we to conclude that fantasy creations lack human dimensions?

That initial quotation starting the story immediately alerts us that we’re leaving reality. To ensure that the reader is on board for the journey, Domet wisely gives another clue in the first paragraph as her character’s imagination works to establish the perfect setting for her romantic hero’s appearance. He sees me in a bar, drinking a martini, dirty. Or rather, a museum. It is a museum, and I am pondering a Pollock piece. Canceling the bar and substituting museum and a Pollock painting shows us her fantasy needs a certain elevation, a class, which to me gives her imagination another nice dimension, a freedom to create what she needs. (I suspect the character has never actually seen a Pollock, and if she saw one she would probably agree with one Pollock critic who said the artist’s drip paintings were mere wallpaper.)

There’s much to admire in Ms. Domet’s writing. In one passage I especially like, Ms. Domet’s character defines her past self, a victim of stodgily proper and boring routine. I packed my lunch every day, usually a salad, sometimes a sandwich—sometimes a small salad and half sandwich. I wore my seatbelt always, even when parked. I never ran yellow lights. I went to bed by 10:30. The seatbelt reference is especially clever and I rather wish she had made it the last sentence, on the premise that such passages are best when they build.

Clever, too, are sentences like this: I’m a woman with needs, a heroine in search of a hero, a ying looking for some yang. Here she deftly puts the punch at the end.

There’s a neat writer’s skill, too, in parallelisms such as these two sentences by Carl about his new love.

"I love her,” he said. And I knew he did.

I’m sorry,” he said. And I believed he was.

Or a final example of Ms. Domet’s writing ability, speaking about Sandy: And when he leans in to kiss me, I think about many things: the warmth of his lips, the way his tongue lifts mine as though helping it out of my mouth. I think about kisses in general, so odd the way humankind is attracted to tongues and spit and orifices. “Spit” is marvelously out of place in that paean to a kiss.

It’s clear that the male character—Sandy—is a fantasy creation. More subtle is the protagonist’s attempt to change herself from reality to a fantasy she wishes to create. Is she successful? When she’s with Sandy, she says, And I couldn’t be happier. Really. That last one-word sentence compels our attention. Is she trying to convince herself? Can she?

We recognize what she wants when she defines what she experiences with Sandy: for the first time I think that maybe love can be easy, two dimensional, uncomplicated—like a children’s puzzle where the pieces are dramatically large, shaped and colored in obvious ways so it’s easy to make connections. It’s a pleasant thought. That she uses a children’s puzzle rather puts the idea in perspective.

To create an alternative fantasy universe, we need exorcise the demons of reality. Domet’s character says, But this story isn’t. . .about Carl, her husband who left her for another woman, taking their infant whom she did not love. Later she says, I don’t wish to talk about Carl. Yet Carl re-enters the story repeatedly like the tolling of a funeral bell. Are we to conclude that fantasies simply can’t overcome grim reality? Or that with more development and time the fantasy will grow in strength and Carl will evaporate like a wisp of cloud?

The story ends with the characters going to the museum’s miniature antique rooms, two fantasy characters entering a doll’s house where they will bed and. . .and what? Is fantasy sex fulfilling?

One small problem I have with Ms. Domet’s story probably is simply a matter of personal style. She never gives her character a name. I’m one who believes that such specifics give readers something solid to cling to. Without a name, for me it is more difficult to empathize fully with the protagonist. A name, I think, is a vital part of character definition. After all, isn’t a “Billy Bob” a different human than a “Biff,” a “Lindsay” unlike an “Abigail”?

A second problem I perceive is a bit more difficult to explain. I start by quoting three passages:

such is not the case with this Sandy, not the case with our hero.

I am the heroine of the story—the hero’s heroine, Sandy’s heroine. I’ve always wanted to be a heroine,

His voice feels like a hundred pin pricks in my back. His voice is acupuncture.

Repetition is, I think, a fragile tool best used carefully or it will shatter of its own weight. For illustration, consider Tennessee Williams, surely a master of repetition for poetic effect. For but one example, in his iconic A Streetcar Named Desire, speaking to her sister Stella of the loss of the run down plantation Belle Reve, Blanche says, I, I, I took the blows in my face and body. All of those deaths! Her speech would be pallid as yesterday’s dishwater with but one “I.” Blanche continues, The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn’t be put in a coffin! But had to be burned like rubbish! You just come home in time for the funerals, Stella. And funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths–not always. The repetitions of “funeral” and “death” and comparable images add impact. Yet this master faltered in his A Period of Adjustment. I shuddered every time a character said, “We’re just going through a period of adjustment.” And that was just in Act One.

The moral here? Repetition can be poetic. Or off-putting.

For me, Ms. Domet’s story would be stronger with judicious editing of repetition.

Those two problems—if, indeed, they are problems—don’t diminish the overall power of this story about a hunger to find a remedy for loneliness, a plaintive need to repair a shattered life.

Ms. Domet’s story takes us on a journey of hope. She wisely leaves it up to the reader to decide if the journey is successful for her protagonist. Indeed, one of the strengths we see here is the writer’s faith in the reader to read intelligently and—surely—imaginatively.

Google has little information on the author, but based on the strengths of this story, my guess is that we’ll be seeing more of Sarah Domet’s writing.

Reviewer's Bio:

Louis E. Catron has been a stock car racer, an actor, a newspaper reporter, a circus barker, a playwright, a pilot, a theatrical director, a sailboat racer, a college professor (the College of William and Mary). Along the way he’s won significant awards for directing, playwriting, and teaching. Many of his students have become well-known actors, screenwriters, and television writers, and over two dozen have written successful books. He’s author of a number of books, articles, and plays; one of his plays has been performed several thousand times in every state in America and a number of times in Canada. With a deep sense of returning home, he recently renewed a childhood dream of writing fiction and he’s currently seeking publication of a completed novel and a collection of short stories.

1. Go here (an Amazon site) to read a Louis E. Catron short story, "The Good Stuff."

2. Or here to read another short story, "Fat Busters, Inc."

3. Or here for yet another story, "Aunt Rose Lee and the Battle of the Roses."

Personal website.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

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