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2020 Short Story Tourney > Story of Your Life vs The Largesse of the Sea Maiden Commentary

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message 1: by Jason (new)

Jason Perdue | 624 comments GWEN: First off, I know we’ve both been in the commentator booth before, so no need to go over our backgrounds again. Second, how do you feel about this match-up? Are these the stories you hoped would end up here?

JASON: This is some match-up. I'm happy with these two stories making the final. Largesse is probably my favorite from this side, but I'm not passionate about any of them really.

GWEN: For me, this match-up is exactly what I hoped it would be. Story of Your Life and The Largesse are my top two favorites on this side of the list. What stands out for me in both these stories is their humanity. These stories tap into deep emotions and get at what it really means to be a human in this world, the good and the challenging. Many of the stories in this tournament do this, of course, but these two really excel at this, in my opinion. Also, I love how both of these stories are structurally interesting. The stories are told through episodes that are broken up over time. Despite these breaks, both stories hang together as a whole. True, The Largesse is a bit looser in form, but I see common themes throughout. For Story of Your Life, the episodes come together into an elegant finish that circles back to the beginning. I loved how both these stories experimented with form. What about you? How did you respond to the structures of these stories?


message 2: by Jason (last edited May 14, 2020 07:50AM) (new)

Jason Perdue | 624 comments JASON I've been quite amazed and intimidated by the commentary on all of these stories. I feel a lot of pressure doing commentary. Everyone else seems to be doing this so smoothly, and I'm over here rewriting every sentence feeling like a poseur.

For me, the bouncing around structure of both of these stories works very well. Story of Your Life demands it with the two pronged story of the aliens and her daughter and how they melt together in this tangled way that is about how our futures are fated. Largesse's meandering thru some late-life reflections and stories quickly builds a three-dimensional picture of a life in a very short space. I think the structure of both of these stories make them able to be read in different ways. It allows the reader to find the points of connection into the story that isn't laid on a track by the authors.

GWEN: I know what you mean about the pressure/stress of doing this commentary. This is my fourth time in the booth, and it’s not getting any easier. That said, I am enjoying how being a commentator is pushing me to dive deeper into these stories and to stay with them for longer. Typically, when I read a short story, I read it in one sitting and then think something along the lines of, “Huh, that was cool.” Then I go on to another story or another novel. This competition has pushed me to revisit the same set of stories over a couple weeks, and it’s been a growing experience for me. I’m forced to be more patient and to think deeper. Now that we are getting near the end, we (collectively) have already said a lot about these two stories, so I don’t plan to repeat those thoughts here. Let’s not pressure ourselves to right a ton! Instead, we are just teeing up the discussion for the commentariat to continue in the comments.

JASON: These two stories tap into some well-worn, but universal storytelling themes: regret, death, nostalgia, our sense of fate, and the ungraspable enigma of the passing of time. But, they get there in different ways. Johnson's physical, grounded realism vs Chiang's use of sci-fi to question our own perception of reality and time. In general, I'm much more of a realistic fiction reader. So much so, that I had to read essays about Story of Your Life to even understand what Chiang was really doing. Some of the essays made me think I didn't even read the same story. I think Chiang's novella is in this weird middle space in my reading attention spectrum. A novel demands my attention from page one, figure out the world, characters, relevant plot lines and sink in. A short story is less demanding of those things because they will develop quickly and be finished. This novella had me unsure what to pay attention to and what was important. Is it the science? the language? the story of her daughter? what order is all this happening in? I finished and I just thought, so if I knew the future, would I do anything to change it?

How are you with short stories in general? How did this long, short story work for you?


message 3: by Jason (new)

Jason Perdue | 624 comments GWEN: I’m not a huge fan of short stories. I prefer to dive into a novel for a number of days or even weeks. I like the full immersion experience that a great novel can provide. When I do read stories, I enjoy the intellectual stimulation, but I’m usually left somewhat unsatisfied by their brevity. Maybe that’s why Story of Your Life really worked for me. This story is longer than most short stories, and it really takes its time with the details. We get to see the multiple scenes with the septapods play out in what feels like real time. Chiang is never rushed, at least that’s the way this story felt to me. It’s not quite the full meal that a novel is, but it was more than a snack. I also really enjoyed The Largesse, but the story did leave me wanting more in a way that Story of Your Life did not.

JASON: Largesse is so relatable it scares me. This post-middle-aged man with a fading 'one hit wonder' attending more funerals than parties hits the nail right on the head, my head. (I haven't started roaming my CA neighborhood in a robe yet tho). I can feel Johnson's own impending death in the way these stories wallow in nostalgia: hot dogs and snow in New York, drinking in dive bars, past glory, dead friends. It's the summation of a life that seems pretty ordinary in its mid-century, male-centered blandness and yet evokes a melancholy in me that makes me feel understood in that Kundera way of yelling out, "hey, that's just like me!" All that said, I'm not sure what the appeal is for the voters who have brought it this far. Without re-hashing points already made, what is it about Largesse that you say it's one of your two favorites? or why it's been so popular with the voters?


message 4: by Jason (new)

Jason Perdue | 624 comments GWEN: Usually, I have a ready answer as to why I like a particularly book/story, but this is a hard question for me to answer in relation to The Largesse. I’m not sure what exactly was special about The Largesse to me except that it made me feel so much empathy for these characters. For example, in the first episode, when Deirdre started to cry right before kissing Chris’s amputated leg and then we find out a paragraph later that they ended up getting married, that got me. Denis Johnson has a way of capturing these little, seemingly insignificant events and then demonstrating how meaningful they can become. In this case, a drunken escapade turns into a life partner. Another one of these little epiphanies happens near the end of the episode titled Memorial. The narrator is surprised to learn that Tony Fido, an acquaintance who recently committed suicide, believed the narrator to be his best friend. (“Tony’s best friend? I was confused. I’m still confused. I hardly knew him.”) It’s this revelation at the end of the episode that carries it from the realm of the sad-but-normal into the tragic. I could go on and on with other examples. This story is full of them, and that’s what I love about it.

For me, I often put short stories into one of two buckets (yes, this practice is overly simplistic and reductionist, but it works for me). One bucket is for the clever stories that appeal to my intellectual side (often including a twist ending), and the other bucket is for what I think of as “heart stories.” My first bucket includes stories like The Husband Stitch, Friday Black, and Toward Happy Civilization. The Largesse falls squarely into my bucket for “heart stories” (along with The Paper Menagerie and The Bear Came Over the Mountain). It’s a rare story that straddles both buckets well, and I think Story of Your Life does that. How do you think of stories? If you have a system or approach, where does The Largesse fall into that for you?

JASON: I do something similar. Does the story make me feel something vs think something? I felt Largesse and thought a lot about Story of Your Life. I prefer them about equally, but usually it's the felt stories that I'm telling other people about. I didn't read all of the stories, but of the ones I did, the only one I felt filled both buckets was Semplica-Girls. I think I was struggling to understand Chiang's story too much for the feeling to reach me.


message 5: by Jason (new)

Jason Perdue | 624 comments JASON: I noticed that after the first round, there were five women authors and three men remaining. And now with Paper Managerie in the final, the last three standing are the men. Do you think there's any significance here?

GWEN: Interesting observation. However, I don’t think there’s any significance here. With a sample size as small as we have here, it’s not unexpected to get skewed results like this. It comes down to which stories we connected with the most as a group, and I don’t think the sex of the writers had much influence. In fact, if I didn’t know the writers, I might have guessed that a couple of the final stories were written by women. Story of Your Life has such a nuanced view of the mother-daughter relationship that it could have easily been written by a woman. The mother’s perspective is also very well done in The Paper Menagerie. What do you think? Do you see significance here?

JASON: I agree. With so few stories, I don't see it as significant. I do wish there were a few more men commenting on the stories, but I'm sure it's about the normal distribution for our group or just about any Goodreads group. Let's hear what the group has to say about this match-up and tomorrow's finale between Paper Menagerie and Story of Your Life.


message 6: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 469 comments Ha, you guys have no need to worry about the commentary - you guys are killing it!

Great reflections on these two stories. You've made me appreciate Largesse a bit more and brought out the things I loved about Story of Your Life.

I'm more surprised that tomorrow's matchup is two "non-traditional" stories with a sci-fi and magical realism matchup. But I suppose most of our stories have been outside of normal fiction!

Also, Gwen, I like your buckets!


message 7: by Lauren (last edited May 14, 2020 04:17PM) (new)

Lauren Oertel | 876 comments Thank you for this great commentary! I like to see all of our time in the booth here as practice in case any of us gets to be in the real ToB booth. I would have been too intimidated to sign up for that before, but it's been fun here, so I threw my email into doc for the Camp discussion spots. :)

I didn't quite get The Largesse and you both have helped me see its finer points with your comments here. Thanks for digging into those details and themes!

I also like this buckets approach. Story filled both buckets for me, so I'm glad it made it this far. I still haven't voted yet since I also loved Paper Menagerie, but thinking about the buckets, PM filled the heart bucket, but just dipped into to "thinking" bucket. Both stories will stick with me for a long time, but I might need to cast my vote for Story.

I agree that Story could have easily been written by a female author. The Largesse, not so much. But then The Bear was, so maybe it's possible?


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