The anthology is split into four parts, each roughly forty pages in length. The first part consists primarily of longer narratives, while the second part is mostly composed of stories of two to three pages. The third part returns to the longer accounts while the fourth reverts back to shorter pieces. This is an interesting method, but this alternate lengthening of the stories only highlights how Unferth’s longer short stories are of a much higher quality than her shorter pieces.
The longer stories, including “Wait TIll You See Me Dance” and “Voltaire Night,” are the strongest pieces in the anthology: The stories are fleshed out, the characters are portrayed in more death, and the author’s main purpose is clear. The shorter pieces, however, fall short. Their short length makes it nearly impossible for a reader to form an attachment to a character. Each story ends in sadness, and the sole purpose of these narratives seems to be to evoke sorrow in the reader. These repeated stories of grief are too short to establish a substantial connection to plot or character. This emotion alone is not a strong enough emotion to carry an entire half of an anthology. Unferth’s shorter pieces lack the depth and connection to the reader that make her longer stories so enjoyable.
The best story in the book is “Voltaire Night.” This story follows a teacher of a late-night writing class, who at the end of each semester takes her students out and has them recount the worst thing that ever happened to them. The plot mimics a storyline from Voltaire’s “Candide,” causing a student to dub the outing “Voltaire Night.” The narrating teacher’s present woes help explain Voltaire Night’s creation and the Voltaire Nights themselves. The second half of the story is dominated by a student whose deeply depressing “worst tale” won Voltaire Night and all future Voltaire Nights. This story is excellently written, and it intricately weaves the narrative of the class with the story of the teacher’s life. In the middle of a student’s story, the narrator states, “I didn’t know this yet, but by the time of the last Voltaire night, things were beginning to take a slow turn for the better for me.” These interruptions of the present give information about the narrator’s past and future. Although the ending is sad, the story poses an interesting question about terrible situations. Are bad things good solely because they allow a person to “win” when sharing sad stories? Do they make people stronger? Or are bad things simply bad? This story was simultaneously touching, intriguing, dismal and thought-provoking.
An interesting aspect of Unferth’s style is her common use of questions within her stories. Her first piece is almost completely composed of rhetorical questions such as “Why couldn’t she be more likable?” and “What was the problem?” This approach is not limited to just the first story—almost every piece uses this stimulating style to engage the reader. This uncommon technique draws readers in with its unusual tone. By forcing these questions on readers, Unferth engages them on a deeper, more thought-provoking level as they are forced to think about the purpose of each particular narrative. Questions such as “After all, what is the point?” and “Were they illusions?” bring the reader closer to the real issues of the pieces. Unferth sets herself apart with this distinct, easily recognizable style.
Unferth has a particular style and noticeable tendency towards bleak topics. While each story is unique, they all have the same somber mood and tone. Although her longer pieces are enjoyable, her shorter stories evoke too much sadness to outweigh their shallow plots. All in all, the second and fourth parts of this anthology are worth the read, while the first and third are not.
CandideAmong other things, Voltaire's Candide might have made a fine musical comedy. The book is a terrifically sophisticated, funny recit
A Midwest MindscapePIRHAPS the most intriguing aspect of Alive and Dead in Indiana lies in the title itself. In this collection of
The Monthly and Advocate.Today appears the first issue of the Monthly for the coming winter. This October number is distinctly good, and the
MAKING MYSTERIESIt is curious that most people feel they must apologize for a love of mystery stories. They feel somehow that
PARTING SHOT: Finding the Story Beyond the StorySomewhere in a half-asleep doze from Boston to Providence, I realized I was being driven by someone who’d had a very real role in the music industry.