Tim O’Brien

quotation marks, and their abuse

Why have I raised this subject, when not so long ago I was saying in no uncertain terms that puncutation is boring, and unworthy of discussion? It’s my way of preparing you for a short but very intense rant:

There are people who pepper their prose with quotation marks and not as a way to punctuate dialog. You know what I mean, those “writers” who try to make a point more “clearly” by isolating specific words with quotation marks. As I just did. Forgive me; it was all in the service of making my point.

Using quotation marks in the way says one thing very clearly, and it’s most certainly not the thing you mean to say:

This is not exactly the right word; I know it, and so do you.

It’s is a lazy and distracting habit, and I suspect that it correlates closely to an excessive fondness of exclamation points.

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to point out that it is possible to do without quotation marks completely, even in punctuating direct dialog between characters. This is from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of interwoven short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, exactly how it appears on the page:

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.


You know. Moral.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, It’s like what that old TV show — Paladin. Have gun, will travel.

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

Yeah, well, he finally said. I don’t see no moral.

There it is, man.

Fuck off.

Not that I’m promoting this practice, particularly. Just an observation; and yes, okay, a violent observation, but that is, I assure you, a coincidence. Really, it is.

I’m still thinking about non-negotiables in character development, and will have something about that tomorrow.

twinkling transgressions, and not.

I’ve found quite a few authors who have allowed eyes to twinkle, though none have resorted to exploding with merriment. Most of what I found was not good.

I’ve decided not to give you citations, because in one case the author is dead, and I have no urge to beat anybody up.

“He eyed them with a twinkling eye. “

“He laughed, his green eyes twinkling impishly.”

“…Paul said, grinning and narrowing his eyes, which were the twinkling blue of a boy’s, though he was fifty-five years old”

And then I came across Tim O’Brien, who shook things up, as he always does. O’Brien is best known for his collection of short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. In the story in question, there’s a dead American soldier in the road.

“The one eye did a funny twinkling trick, red to yellow. His head was wrenched sideways, as if loose at the neck, and the dead yong man seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped flowers along the trail.”

There’s cliche, and then there’s what you can do to turn cliche on its ear and make it work again. This is one of the many things O’Brien does so well. The right detail, the right twist, and you’re on that road in Vietnam looking at this unfortunate young man and seeing him clearly, as painful as that must be.

PS I haven’t listed The Night Before Christmas (which somebody mentioned yesterday in a comment) as a good or bad example. That one you’ll have to deal with on your own terms.

short stories

I’m pretty exacting when it comes to short stories. Either they please me quick, or I bail out.

I want a plot. I want characters whose voices are loud and clear. They don’t have to be likable, but they’ve got to engage my interest somehow. I want to be enchanted or amused or shocked or furious, all those things at once, if possible. Many classic short stories leave me cold, so don’t be surprised that you won’t find James Joyce on this list or (cough) Hemingway. Don’t misunderstand: subtle is just fine and dandy, as long as it still comes with a plot attached. The list is in the Extended Body below.

Of those stories I’ve mentioned, I would have to say that Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne” is as close as it comes to perfect, in my view of things. This short story has been filmed as a part of the Issues of Aging Curated Video Collection (actors Theresa Merritt as Hazel and Bill Cobbs as Bovanne).

I’d be interested to hear from you if you know any of these stories and have an opinion. Oh, and: I’ve given you more than one place to find the story, if I have that information available.

ALLEN, WOODY. The Kugelmass Episode
New Yorker May 2 1977
Worlds of Fiction ed. Roberta Rubenstein & Charles R. Larson, MacMillan College Division 1993

ATWOOD, MARGARET. Rape Fantasies
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991
Fiction: A Longman Pocket Anthology ed. R. S. Gwynn, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1998

We Are the Stories We Tell: The Best Short Stories by North American Women Since 1945 ed. Wendy Martin, Pantheon Books 1990
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

Epoch 1985
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

BLOOM, AMY The Story
The Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E. L. Doctorow, Houghton Mifflin 2000

GODWIN, GAIL Dream Children
The Harper Anthology of Fiction, ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

JACOBS, W. W. The Monkey’s Paw
Harper’s Monthly Sep 1902
Olden Tales ed. Bradford M. Day, Hillsville, VA: DayStar Press 1996

KING, STEPHEN The Reach AKA “Do the Dead Sing”
Yankee Nov 1981
American Short Stories (7th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Longman 2001

OATES, JOYCE CAROL Extenuating Circumstances
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
New York: Dutton 1994

O’BRIEN, TIM The Things They Carried
Esquire Aug 1986
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

MUNRO, ALICE Friend of My Youth
New Yorker Jan 22 1990
Short Fiction ed. Charles H. Bohner & Dean Dougherty, Prentice Hall 1999

ROSENFELD, STEPHANIE Grasp Special Comb and
in her collection of short stories: What About the Love Part Ballantine 2002