Henry James vs. Tobias Wolff: A Deal Me In Short Story Chalenge

tobias wolfe (1)I really was not in the mood for a Henry James short story.  So please take what I say here about “The Private Life” with a grain of salt or two.

The Private Life” concerns a group of well-heeled tourist stuck in a Swiss hotel due to bad weather.  They’re going to be sharing the hotel for a long time, so they quickly get to know each other, form relationships, team up against each other a bit.

Two characters, the narrator and an actress named Blanche, form a quick friendship built in large part on gossiping about the rest of their party.  They form two theories.  In one, Clare Vawdry, a famous writer, is really two people–one an insightful intelligent artist who is never seen in public, the other an insufferable bore who has no existence but a public one.  The second theory concerns Lord Mellifont whom they are convinced is really half of a person who does not exist at all except when he has a viewing audience.

That’s a bit precious, but it’s clever enough; had I been in the correct mood I probably would have enjoyed it as much as I have the other Henry James stories I have read.  This time around, the story struck, me as Henry James cranking out another one to pay off one bill or another.  I can’t begrudge a man his living, but I recommend skipping “The Private Life.

The second story I drew for this round of the Deal Me In Challenge Tobias Wolff’s very short piece “Bullet in the Brain” is a wonder.  It’s a very simple idea–Anders, a jaded and very acerbic book critic, is shot in the head during a bank robbery.  As the bullet travels through his brain, various random neurons release specific memories, serving up a handful of events for Anders to remember as he dies.

I think this is a fascinating, powerful idea. What would be the memory you’d most like to have in your last moments?  What would be the one you’d probably get?

Waiting on line, the reader has little patience for Anders.  He listens to the robbery in progress around him, unafraid, acting as a critic viewing a bad script when he should be thinking about self-preservation.

“One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?

The tellers nodded

“Oh, bravo,” Anders said. “Dead meat.”  He turned to the woman in front of him.  “Great script, eh?  The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

When one of the bank robbers hears Anders making fun of him,  he soon grows impatient enough to shoot the book critic in the head.  The way Tobias Wolff describes the bullet’s trajectory, the long list of memories it could have hit, important events Anders might have remembered, and the wonderful ordinary event he does recall make for an inspired scene.  In fact, I once saw this played out on a stage by the Word for Word Theatre group several years ago.  The audience loved it

Anders does not recall his first love, or his last one, nor any of the significant people in his life be they friend, family or foe.  Instead he recalls an ordinary day when he was young and heard a cousin use an unusual turn of phrase that caught his ear.  A dying man obsessed with language recalls the moment when he fell in love with language.

So how can these two stories connect?  In his own way, Anders is a character fit for a Henry James story.   Aristocratic, self-absorbed, too involved with his own narrative to realize what’s really going on around him.  In a Henry James story, Anders would have a moment at the end of the story when he discovers how wrong he was about someone else, but in Wolff’s story the reader has this epiphany.

We see Anders as comically bitter through the first part of “Bullet in the Brain.”  He’s funny, but he’s pathetic, too.  A bitter man with nothing more to offer his readers.  But the memory he shares shows us the opposite.  A young man, full of wonder, capable of finding delight in what’s really an accidental turn of phrase.  By sharing his dying moment, the reader comes to see that Anders is not the man we thought he was at all.


6 thoughts on “Henry James vs. Tobias Wolff: A Deal Me In Short Story Chalenge

  1. I haven’t read that James, but “Bullet in the Brain, now that’s a classic. They’ll be reading that a hundred years from now.

    It is almost too cheap, isn’t it, a writer’s revenge against critics. But it goes somewhere great. Plus, it’s hilarious. “Capisce!”

    1. I admit there is an element of “writer’s revenge against critics” but I always connected Wolff with Anders, since they are both men of words. And, I’ll admit it, I identify with Anders and his impatience with the use of bad language.

  2. The only Tobias Wolff I’ve read is “Hunters in the Snow” (or something like that), but you have piqued my interest in the “Bullet in the Brain” story. I’m adding it to my list.

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