20th century / Arts

‘I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things’: Listening to Parker’s Short Stories

By Jade Broughton

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) was an essayist, poet and writer, infamous for her cutting wit and sharp-tongued observations of the ineptitudes of those around her. Often described as a ‘wit’, she came to resent her reputation as a ‘wise-cracker’. Beginning her writing career on Vogue magazine, others described her position as ‘editorial’, while she defined it as ‘writing captions’. She went on to review plays for Vanity Fair to write poems and stories for The New Yorker, spending some of her later years in Hollywood, working on scripts and song lyrics. She ascribed her artistic success to what Douglas calls her ‘disciplined eye and… wild mind’.

In Parker’s poems and stories, perhaps the most interesting of her artistic genres, she characteristically casts the ‘I’ voice as a misfit, a social failure, or a woman spurned; portraying these characters through precise and vivid snapshots of their lives and situations. She would sometimes spend weeks perfecting one three-page sketch, to ensure that not a word was amiss and her resulting terse frugality with words leads to a contemplation of the unsaid, as well as the said, and this is never more apparent than in her short stories. Looking back on her writing career in a 1956 interview, Parker explained: ‘my past stories make themselves stories by telling themselves through what people say. I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things.’

This is evident in her short fiction works, in which a variety of women make themselves heard, not always to their co-characters, but to the reader, whose experience of the story is sometimes mediated entirely by the character’s own voice in monologue form. In other stories, the reader is left to reconstruct aspects of what Parker has ‘heard’ before writing a story. Her writings are paradoxically filled with incompletion: fragments of conversations metonymically serve to represent characters who are themselves torn or divided emotionally or geographically, such as the estranged lovers of the 1939 short story, New York to Detroit, whose doomed long-distance conversation is eavesdropped upon not only by the indifferent operator, but also by the reader who is left feeling strangely guilty when the operator hangs up on the girl, metonymically designated ‘New York’.

‘All through with Detroit?’ said the operator.
‘No!’ she said. ‘No, no, no! …Get him back. No never mind. Never mind it now. Never–‘

This piece highlights two central concerns in Parker’s work. The first is that of voices which have been disembodied, whether spatially or through a death. The second is a frustration with modern life here expressed through the utterly inhospitable environment of a phone line in which ‘New York’ tries to emotionally engage with a literally and figuratively distant and disconnected ‘Detroit’.

The voice of ‘New York’ is paradoxically both heard and unheard: heard by the reader, yet not by the gentleman in question. The telephone is potentially a symbol of the communicative possibilities of the modern age, but here it disappoints expectations of connectivity by serving to compound the initial sense of isolation. Parker is a passionate proponent of this defiance of expectation, as is evident from the epigrammatic turns at the end of many of her poems. For example, Love Song ends, ‘my own dear love, he is all my heart – / And I wish somebody’d shoot him.’ For every example of Parker identifying isolation and alienation as something remarkable, it is possible to find a counteracting example of this loneliness treated as a general and eternal condition, which can be read as a universalising experience of sorrow in women. Her protagonists are jilted lovers, abandoned but faithful wives, and bored housewives trapped by their own homes and drawn instinctively towards telephone-side vigils. Yet while this state may be common to her women, it is certainly not an excuse for empathetic bonding, and the female voices of Parker’s fiction (and to an extent, poetry) are constantly set in opposition to and competition with their absent predecessors and imagined successors, as well as their peers, with an almost obsessive reiteration.

In The Lovely Leave, which Parker selected as the opening story of her 1944 collection entitled Portable, a woman awaits her husband’s return accompanied only by the menacing presence of the telephone and her irrationally pessimistic thoughts. She identifies this illogicality as a specifically feminine trait:

‘Women alone often developed into experts at the practice. She must never join their dismal league.’

The phrase ‘women alone’ here could mean both ‘women on their own’ and ‘only women.’ Parker implies that ‘women alone’ are an interdependent, cohesive and ultimately threatening ‘league’ from which the speaker decisively opts out. By opposing the ‘she’ with the exclusively female ‘they’ in the sentence, Parker summarises this irrational condition of ‘women alone together’, and presents us with the first in an extensive series of personas who consciously choose isolation and the subsequent distress of essentially self-enforced neglect.

The tortured voices that Parker ‘hears’ in order to construct a story could take an awfully long time to gestate before a finished piece emerged. In an interview in 1956, she said herself that, ‘It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence’. This constant contemplation of the tortured ‘I’ voice would take its toll on any artist, and by 1956, Parker was ready to put a stop to the voices, ‘I’m not going to do those ‘he-said, she-said’ things anymore, they’re over, honey, they’re over …I’m trying now to do a story that’s purely narrative.’ She never did.

References:
Parker. D, The Collected Dorothy Parker (London, 2001)
Douglas. A, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s Noonday Press (US 1995)
Pettit. R, A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker’s Poetry and Fiction (US, 2000)
Gourevich. P, The Paris Review Interviews Picador (US 2006)

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