Monday, June 25, 2012

"No One's a Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent

"'I'm not wrong,' he said. 'And her breath would smell like your milk, and it's kind of a bittersweet smell, if you want to know the truth.'"

Elizabeth Tallent's very short story (it's under 1000 words) "No One's a Mystery," is like Chekhov's "Gusev" for me because it's the ending, the final sentence, that catapults the piece to a place that feels at once surprising and inevitable. I would like both stories without their final sentences, but not nearly so much. 

Tallent's final line, spoken by Jack to his eighteen-year-old lover as they careen down the highway hiding from his wife, pushes the dramatic irony to new heights and reverses our expectations. We want to believe that his lover is right, that in a year they'll be married, have children, still be in love. It's pretty obvious Jack's not the greatest guy for her, but we're in her point-of-view. She's so powerless, hiding under the seat with Jack's hand on her head, and so idealistic. Wouldn't it be nice?

By the end, we've realized the only really nice thing about Jack is that he understands the relationship has to end, that he really does believe his version of the story and has good reasons to. He has experience. He knows the breath of an infant won't smell like vanilla, that this girl will forget him. As readers, we know what both characters believe, and know, too, that they can't believe one another. 

The story's length also reminds me that in great writing every word is used, that we don't always need many words to do a lot. 

Sudden Fiction is a great anthology full of literary short-shorts—lots of big names with pieces on writing at the end. You can also read Tallent's story online. And here's the Roseanne Cash song ("It Hasn't Happened Yet") they're listening to, sung by Rick Nelson and Roseanne herself

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