(CLASSIC: from The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin Classics)
I’d pick this story because of how it builds up such a complete picture of a people wanting to deny their mortality and their frailty by turning to distraction. They and their king use their privilege and their resources to construct a fantasy: that they are above or beyond death, that they are sheltered from the masses who are dying outside the abbey gates. The key to their fantasy is that they must not think, and they must not grieve; they must completely buy into the illusion, keep dancing, keep laughing, keep smiling. It’s not until the chiming of the clock at midnight that their frenzy of denial is interrupted, and they have to pause to think and finally recognise what is right there in their midst. This story sticks with me not only for the artistry in how it unfolds, but also because of its obvious parallels with today – like the fact that we (the UK) have now been at war for longer than WWII, and yet there’s no collective sense of that. We wrap ourselves in distraction, because we can. I’ve heard people refer to coverage of the war in Afghanistan as being like reality TV – something to watch from a distance, no need to grieve or think. That’s why this story resonates with me so much.
(MODERN: from First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton).
The shock that’s sitting in the narrator is never revealed, but we get the undercurrents in the small talk, miscommunication, fantasy and need that are swirling around. What we get in her story is the present – bringing with it the weight of the past – but still very much present.
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