On the Opening of Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter

By Maud Casey

Featured Art: Falling by Aaron Siskind

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.

I have thought about the first line of Barbara Comyns’ novel The Vet’s Daughter since 1993. I was in graduate school and my wonderful professor, the writer Mary Elsie Robertson, suggested I read Comyns. I did and I have been forever grateful for the recommendation. Comyns is that variety of obscure writer who is a secret literary password. To love her is to enter into a speakeasy filled with levitating teenagers, floods, plague, and the occasional monkey. She authored eleven novels between 1947 and 1989 before her death in 1992, with notably captivating titles, such as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. When, in the late Fifties, her original publisher—Heinemann—sent her odd fairy tale of a novel, The Vet’s  Daughter, to Graham Greene for a blurb, he responded, “Please, send me no more lady novelists.” I’m not sure precisely which part of The Vet’s Daughter Graham objected to, which part he found too lady-ish—its concern with things domestic? Its girl protagonist? In any case, I’m happy to report, he came around because there’s his effusive blurb on the most recent effort to save it from obscurity, the beautiful edition put out by The New York  Review of Books with a foreword by Kathryn Davis and a painting by Louise Bourgeois on the cover that, at first, you might mistake for lovely red stockings hanging on a clothesline but, look closer, those aren’t lovely red stockings, that’s bloody sinew and bone. (The painting’s title is Untitled (Legs and Bones).) Read More

On the Opening of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”

By Alyson Hagy

Featured Art: Pasturage by André Dunoyer de Segonzac

Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was  alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression   was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. . . .

—“Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor

I’m sorry to say I’ve experienced my share of bible salesmen. And I can’t think of the names Joy or Hulga without wincing with delight. But why have I never gotten over the way O’Connor begins “Good Country People”?

I blame front porches.

Read More

On the Opening of Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies”

By Tom Noyes

Featured Art: Boy with Pitcher By Édouard Manet

I’m Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants—and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster writes about the necessity of “bouncing” the reader. At the beginning of a work of fiction, he suggests, the writer must win the reader’s attention in such an immediate, all-encompassing way that the reader has no choice but to forget herself and her “real life” circumstances in order to abide fully and uninterruptedly in the imagined world of the fiction. If the writer can’t bounce the reader from the one world to the other right quick, all is lost.

Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” bounces me before I hit the first comma. I’m intrigued initially by the narrator’s name, and then by his confession—or is it a boast?—and by the time I reach the end of the first sentence, I feel simultaneously amused and disturbed, and I’ve been thoroughly, satisfactorily unsettled and consumed. While I sense in myself the beginnings of a sort of begrudging, even shameful admiration for the narrator—he’s loquacious and brash, and there’s  a sort of tough, urgent quality in his voice—this inclination  is tempered by a twinge of conscience reminding me of the empathetic kinship I know I should feel with his victims. Read More