A Response to Carlson, Dessen, and Puchner

Here are links to the three discussed short stories for any readers of this post who may not be in my creative writing class:
Ron Carlson’s Milk
Sarah Dessen’s Infinity
Eric Puchner’s Essay #3: Leda and the Swan

I read the three stories in alphabetical order of author last name, one after another during the late hours of last night and, technically, this morning. Upon finishing “Milk,” I was certain that it would be the one I’d write my response on; I really liked its simplicity. I decided to finish the readings first though, before making my decision. Not surprisingly, I left “Infinity” sure my response would be about its relatability. Because so many others had already begun posting responses and had chosen Puchner’s story, I told myself I would not choose to respond to “Leda and the Swan.” Once I got through that one, however, I felt an obligation to talk about it. Thus, I cannot help but say a few words about all three of these lovely stories – and I truly did enjoy each one.

In his story “Milk,” Ron Carlson did a superb job allowing the reader to step into the narrator’s place; I, an eighteen-year-old female, was able to relate to an adult male – a father and husband. I think the simplicity of the title really works – clearly the story is not about milk, but about what the pictures of missing children on the back of milk cartons represent: the narrator’s fears and worries. I particularly enjoyed Jim and Annie’s relationship; though there is conflict, they are very loving toward one another, and I really believed in that love and the success of their marriage. I also found Jim’s descriptions of his boys quite intriguing in that he seems to be slightly fonder of Lee than of Bobby – this could just be how I read it, but he seemed to appreciate Lee’s subtle traits more than Bobby’s strong ones, perhaps because he feels he can relate more to Lee? I cannot be sure, but this was something I kept picking up on when he described the twins, though he undoubtedly adores them both. I think the fact that Jim cannot justify to himself the rationality of his refusal to let his sons be fingerprinted is simply great; as a reader, I completely understood both his stubbornness about his decision and his uncertainty about why it mattered to him. Though nothing really happened – no catastrophes, no extraordinary plot – I thought this story was a wonderful look into a young father’s mind. The ending, with him nearly kidnapping his own children but ultimately returning to the safety and comfort of his home, his life, really worked.

As for Sarah Dessen’s “Infinty,” I was completely able to relate, being a teenage girl like the narrator. Everyone goes through young romance and the stress of learning to drive. I thought Dessen did a great job connecting the two experiences – two rites of passage for young adults, if you will. The narrator practiced pushing out of her comfort zone little by little both in driving around the rotary and in her backseat endeavors with her boyfriend, and she felt fear and anxiety about both. Of course, in addition to her own nervousness about the rotary, she feels confined by her mother’s fears and obligated to stand by her refusal to take the shortest route. This story is really about the narrator growing up and overcoming her own personal obstacles; it is about her struggles and self-discovery. She’s realizing some of life’s truths: that love, such as with Anthony, isn’t always love in the sense she wants it to be, that some people have ulterior motives or become distracted and consumed by particular desires, and that people will hurt her. What I really liked though, was her behavior after losing Anthony. Though he storms off and leaves her because she isn’t ready to have sex with him, she doesn’t chase after him or allow her resolve to falter; instead, she focuses her frustration about him, and about her own indecisiveness, on conquering the rotary. She turns what some would allow to be pain and heartbreak (or even guilt at not giving in) into determination and accomplishment.

When I first started “Essay #3: Leda and the Swan” by Eric Puchner, I was sure I had saved the wrong PDF. I thought it might be an essay about the short story I was meant to read. As soon as I actually started reading it though, I became completely engrossed. Parts of it made me laugh out loud – the way the narrator criticized her sister’s appearance and talked of stealing her boyfriend so casually and matter-of-factly, for example. Puchner did a brilliant job writing from the point of view of a member of the opposite gender much younger (and less intelligent, perhaps) than himself. The run-on sentences and casual diction were not a distraction; I really liked all the footnotes and how Natalie’s story was actually supposed to be an essay for a class. I kept waiting for the story to somehow tie back to those perverted swans, but eventually I was satisfied just by reading her narrative. I agree with some of the other students’ responses that it is both comical and sad. What’s sad, to me, is the poor decisions Natalie makes (“intercoursing” with Collin even after discovering him in her sister’s room, for example) that she will surely regret when she’s older. Of course, it is sad that she simultaneously misses her sister and Collin and feels the sting of betrayal caused by their relationship and the possibility that they ran away together. Still, she made the decision to lose her virginity to Collin and was naive enough to believe in “the Gift.” I think the “sad” part is that she doesn’t seem to learn anything. I cannot help but pity her and criticize her at the same time. This was one story about adolescence not ending with the narrator maturing and learning some profound truth, but I think that’s precisely what makes it so good; it is realistic.


2 responses to “A Response to Carlson, Dessen, and Puchner

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response(s), Rachel. As I may have mentioned in class, Ron Carlson is the man. Check out some of his other stories if you’re into this type of simple storytelling with compelling (and often conflicted) characters who feel like people you know. I got a chance to meet him a few years ago. If you’re interested to hear what he says about the craft of writing, here’s a link: http://fictionwritersreview.com/interviews/learning-about-the-dark-an-interview-with-ron-carlson

    Your critical ideas about these stories are well-written and reveal strong analytical skills. Very enjoyable to hear your take on these tales. As we begin to look more closely at short fiction, try to use your responses to stay focused on the concept of CRAFT. In other words, it might be even more productive to write about a single element in a story, rather than trying to assess the story overall. Begin to zero in on a specific decision the writer made: Why give us this particular scene? Why choose to tell the story from the point of view of a teenage girl? How does the writer get us to (dis)like a character so strongly? What is the effect of narrating the story in non-chronological order? I look forward to seeing how you apply your good critical reading skills toward craft questions like these. And I’ll be curious simply to know which stories you like and why. Keep sharing your enthusiasm.

    • Thanks! I will definitely check out that interview when I get the chance. I wasn’t sure how long or detailed our responses were supposed to be. I had actually forgotten we were supposed to write them until Martin gave us your remember, and then it was just “Make sure you read the three stories and respond to one.” I thought, respond to one how? So this was me just winging it, I guess. It’s good to know what you’re looking for on the next one; I’ll definitely keep your comments in mind. Thanks again.

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