Nearly 40 years after I, etcetera, a new collection of short fiction from the noted essayist and critic, revealing her to be indeed “an occasional rather than a habitual writer of short stories.”
A debriefing, in Susan Sontag’s sort-of-Lacanian language, is a data dump of sorts following some sort of emotional trauma: death, suicide, illness. Though editor Taylor finds common cause with Chekhov’s “autobiographophobia,” the fictional pieces here in fact are patently informed by events in Sontag’s life: the opening story, “Pilgrimage,” for instance, begins with Sontag at 14, having moved from Arizona to Southern California; lines such as “I felt I was slumming, in my own life” are vintage essayistic Sontag. So, in later pieces, are the flurries of apothegms: “China is certainly too big for a foreigner to understand. But so are most places.” Indeed, and like the real Sontag, the narrator of the story “Project for a Trip to China” approaches the country from earlier visits to Hanoi and Phnom Penh, complete with a son in tow named David. Later stories are more clearly fictional, some marked by the usual Manhattan immigrant’s wrinkled nose at the things of flyover country: “Once she spent two whole weeks in a little cabin in the Ozarks, catching up on back issues of The Saturday Evening Post, sleeping twelve hours a day, and occasionally yielding to the advances of George, the proprietor of the nearby Friendly Ed Motel.” Still, though not quite de Maupassant, such pieces are rich in observed detail. So it is with “Baby,” told in the voices of parents baring all to a psychiatrist about the brilliant monster they’re raising: “Baby says he was born on Krypton and that we’re not his real parents.” Talk about your little emperor….Returning to an autobiographical vein, Sontag’s collection closes with a pensive meditation on death, illness, and “the desire to stop listening to people’s distress.”
Like Guy Davenport’s, similarly influenced by European modernist models, Sontag’s stories can be arch, smart, and elegant—if sometimes a touch arid. For all that, a welcome collection.