Adventures in Reading and Writing, Part 13
I am often left with the same feeling after reading a great short story. It is not quite that I wish I had written that short story – it is more that I am immediately filled with ideas for stories of my own which will contain all the qualities I admire about the piece I have just consumed. Just in time I realise that what I am planning is a complete re-hash and I bin those thoughts and try to get to work on something completely different.
This happened to me last week when I came across Steven Millhauser’s ‘In The Reign Of Harad IV’, first as a podcast and then as a text (both from The New Yorker – you can read it here for free and the podcast is also free to download, just search for The New Yorker Fiction Podcast in the iTunes store). If I were you I’d read it now – you won’t be disappointed, plus you’ll be able to read the rest of this post without me having given away what happens.
It’s a kind of subatomic fairytale, the story of a craftsmen whose job it is to create miniature furniture for the king’s model palace. As the story progresses we learn how he begins to experiment with producing smaller and smaller items, experimenting “beneath the surface of the visible.” There is a simple joy to be had in marvelling at the impossible skill he displays in crafting a model of the king’s palace which can only be seen under a microscope, but the story really peaks when he goes even further and starts to construct from materials which are not even visible when magnified.
The maker of miniatures seems like a character it would be difficult to dislike – he is talented, conscientious, imaginitive and able to admit his faults – so the reader does not want to write him off as a fool when he begins to make miniatures which are basically invisible. We do not know if he has lost his mind in pursuit of his escalating ideas, or whether the miniatures do actually exist. But if they exist only in his imagination, does this detract from his achievements? There is something beautiful about the purity of his dedication to this extreme art, but also sad when we see the sacrifices he has to make. It ends as he realises that he will no longer be praised for his work and that he too has ventured beneath the surface of the visible. The story slips into a silence which mirrors the fact of his disappearing miniatures and we are left to craft our own understanding of what might happen next. And just as the miniatures are fascinating and inspirational items, so Millhauser’s story lodged in my brain.
Once I had finished reading, I had my customary moment of enthusiasm for writing a story about (in this instance) things that are miniature and/ or invisible, but I managed to stop myself before any damage was done. So, what did I take from this story? Firstly I read a great short story, which is always a good thing for someone who likes reading short stories as well as trying to write them. And although I stopped myself producing my own rip-off, there were still things I learnt from it, more subtle things.
It also made me want to write a short story that is completely different but just as good, so that perhaps another writer of short stories might read it and be momentarily inspired to try and write a re-hash of my work. It’s something to aim towards.