Review Of Dorothy Parker’s Complete Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/18/06
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was cute, sexy, witty, vivacious, delightfully vicious, and the only member of the infamously bad Algonquin Round Table that had even a modicum of real writing talent, and it’s on full display in this collection of her finest short fictions. However, that all being said, Parker’s short fictions are just that- fictions; not real ‘stories’ with narratives that anyone can dig their teeth into. They are moments, fugues, scenes with a single purpose to illuminate, and most do those things very well. It is social criticism as art. But, there is not much real depth to much of her prose work- beyond condemning this or that faux pas, and as a consequence of that artistic choice, just as her light verse lacked any heft, this prose corpus stands in direct contrast to the writer who was her most obvious literary forebear- Oscar Wilde.
In a sense, though, this is an unfair comparison, for Wilde simply was the greatest published witticist in human history, but there is the gnawing feeling, when reading Parker’s ‘scenes’, that she could have been so much more had she been less the bon vivant. Still, compared to what passes for comic commentary today, she is a genius. The New York that she details might best be described as the wordly equivalent to the paintings of Edward Hopper, for under all the goofiness there are extremely lonely and desperate characters. Her heroes, but mostly heroines, all struggle with capital L Loneliness primarily- in the gray beglittered nights of Manhattan neon life in the Jazz Age. They are ordinary folk with extraordinary dreams. Yet, their dreams are all that is extraordinary about them. They are divorcees, wannabe divorcees, boozers, whores, womanizers, palookas, and others from that lot, but that’s all they are. The tales are too short to tell us much else.
The basic problem facing Parker, in this collection of her Complete Stories, though, is that there is a rote quality that infects each ‘scene’. They are all about the four D’s: drinks, dames, dilemmas, dinners; such as this Spillanean opener from Dialogue At Three In The Morning:
‘Plain water in mine,’ said the woman in the petunia-colored hat. ‘Or never mind about the water. Hell with it. Just straight Scotch. What I care? Just straight. That’s me. Never gave anybody any trouble in my life. All right, they can say what they like about me, but I know- I know- I never gave anybody any trouble in my life. You can tell them that from me, see? What I care?’
No matter how well laid out, and no matter how fiercely attacking she is on a certain prejudice nor wrong, the limitations of Parker’s worldview scream at the reader, and pull the whole construct down from individual moments that endear, move, and touch, to a mere collection that stupefies with its sameness. Despite her physical location in the greatest metropolis of its day, and that the world had yet to see, there is no reasonable way that anyone, even her greatest champions, could call Dorothy Parker a cosmopolitan writer nor thinker.
A typical Parker tale has a simple plot: a couple of people, usually two females, discussing society or divorce or the low nature of men, or some portrait of hypocrisy, such as wannabe moralists who forsake drink getting drunk the night before. In Too Bad, some women are perplexed that the happily married Weldons have separated. When we get a peek at their home life the reasons are not so hard to understand. In Here We Are, a just-married couple travel by train to New York City, to begin their honeymoon at a posh hotel, yet the reader sees that the marriage is doomed, due to their immaturity and selfishness. In New York To Detroit, on the telephone, a man on a telephone call pushes a desperate lover out of his life. The ‘bad connection’ helps him weaselly dump her. Yes, there is not a great depth to be plumbed, but these tales do work in achieving their limited aims. What Parker has benefited from, and what has kept her in print over other competent, but forgotten writers of her day, is a cult of personality of the sort that has buoyed the careers of poets Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. Not that Parker was not deserving of such devotion, even if not as good at what she did as the two poets were, but the consequences of that cultism must be considered in assessing her literary worth as distinct from that of her celebrity.
Parker’s main narrative device is conversation, and she’s very adept at conveying the New York brio of the interwar era. In her ‘scenes’, the conversation between characters often occupies perhaps ninety percent or more of the story, with background details seeping in, here and there, between quips and barbs. The speaker who is omniscient, every so often, is often a faux naïf. Revelations occur, but not in grand Joycean epiphanies, but in far subtler distinctions that lazy readers are likely to miss. The brevity of Parker’s tales (most under five pages) also means that there is little fat, and all the words are there for a reason. They do work well and hard.
Parker was certainly not a careless artist, and this fact, revealed in scene after scene, only makes her ultimate corpus’s heft and depth- or lack thereof- all the more distressing. Why did she not strive for more, when she was clearly capable of it? Yes, she was a celebrity, and reviewed for The New Yorker for decades, but is material success that damning an obstacle to the production of great art? Perhaps. Clearly, Parker was capable of greatness, but instead, ended up as an almost non-comic echo of her own gallery of female losers and loveless lasses. Yet, here is a woman who tackled abortion (in the ‘scene’, Mr. Durant, where the actual word abortion is never used at all), alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, and racism decades before it was fashionable, and very well- as always. That some critics have called her a ‘sentimentalist’ seems, to me, absurd on its face. Parker’s work is as shorn of such drippiness as one can imagine any writer being, and such idiocy only shows how little and closely most critics ever actually read their subject matter.
But, the charges of her ideological and artistic narrowness are not so easily disposed of, and perhaps Parker’s prose clarity is part of the reason it damns so brightly and thoroughly. Had she been more baroque, poetic, ornate, she might have successfully obfuscated her limited purview. Ernest Hemingway, by comparison, was wise to disguise his utter lack of cosmopolitan tastes and writing with his real life globetrotting legendry. After all, when you’ve covered wars, visited Kilimanjaro, and run with the bulls of Pamplona, you have done nicely to insulate your rather predictable and narrowly macho words. Parker never did that, becoming almost a more famous version of the renowned hermit Henry Darger, whose own narrowness of outlook and personality eventually caved in his mind. Parker never fell that far, personally, but she never had the literary survival smarts of Hemingway to critically protect her work from its obvious shortcomings and limitations.
Yet, one cannot argue that Parker was not aware of her flaws, because her Complete Stories ends not with her already ‘sketchy’ short stories, but with works actually called Sketches, such as A Dinner Party Anthology or Our Tuesday Club, which are merely a litany of character descriptions, filled with bile and humor of the sort H.L. Mencken, Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce practiced. Still, unfortunately, for every well sketched character there’s an off the rack near-caricature: men who are crude chauvinists and women who are vapid tarts, such as the lead character from A Telephone Call, one of Parker’s most famous tales, who wails:
Please, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won’t ask anything else of You, truly I won’t. It isn’t very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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