This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website. I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.
Speaking broadly, Australian writer Christina Stead’s short story, Street Idyll is about tricking the reader long enough for them to form a specific opinion about the relationship shared between two characters, and then to deliberately up-end this opinion. It’s quite a tiresome literary device at the best of times and, unfortunately, this story is not the best of times.
The entire story revolves around the protagonist, Jenny, lying to herself as she makes her way through her day purely to fool the reader. A real Jenny would not think as she does, or observe herself as she does. No, this is a purely literary matter. So – Jenny puts on her make-up, ponders the day ahead, and thinks about Gill. Gill is someone she meets often, and hopes to meet today. They come together at generally predictable times each day, and each day it is a thrill for her when they meet. They share opinions on some things, and when they can, they sit together for a moment and watch the world go by.
Jenny softened her heart. Gill liked to sit on park benches and talk to people. He liked everyone. Once or twice she had met him there, in the park and he told what people said, or what the children had done, dangerous things or naughty things…Gill believed everyone was his equal and had a soul as sunny as his; he hoped others were like that.
The story, about 5 pages long, continues in this vein. Jenny and Gill are, we sense, hungry for company, and they find comfort in one another in the small amounts of time they share together. There is a whiff of adultery about this, that sad “what if” that sometimes occurs between two people who have the (mis)fortune to be married to others. Stead continues along with this for almost the whole store, building the tension and excitement within Jenny:
Just where would they meet? It was always exciting; her heart beat a little faster. Not too soon – spin it out! Now he was across, looking left and right and over.
They stood there, not knowing what to say, for there is nothing to express the emotion that brought them together the first time and now brought them together.
These quotes indicate intimacy and danger, the kind that adulterers might feel when they “chance” to meet in the street. The other paragraphs surrounding these are of an equally suggestive, quasi-erotic colouring. And later, when they do talk, their conversation is brief, awkward, touching.
The kicker? It is, of course, that they have been happily married to one another for 40 years, and this is part of their every day ritual. Jenny is, in short, a liar to herself – we have been privy to her thoughts throughout the story – and that is something that is wholly unbelievable. Jenny wasn’t lying to herself, she was deliberately lying to us. Without the artificiality of the story, Jenny wouldn’t think as she did, and the story wouldn’t exist. In fact, this is a story that is impossible to exist in any realist sense. Now, fantasy is fine, but this isn’t even a fantasy. It is simply a “gotcha” for the reader. Stead encourages us to hold one opinion about the two characters and then changes it for us. There is no way we can know that Gill and Jenny are actually married as the entire story is written to titillate us into believing that they are not.
I shall use, as a pop culture comparison, an episode from the television show, Modern Family. In it, a married couple decide to both go to a hotel wearing nice clothes, and they will pretend to be strangers and seduce one another. We know this before they are at the hotel, and we know it throughout the entire scene. The scene is funny because both the characters and the audience are aware that they are not really strangers. Comedy is created via the strange juxtaposition of their familiarity and pretence of being strangers. This scene would never work if, instead, this scene was the very first scene in the very first episode of the programme. Because we wouldn’t know the characters, we wouldn’t know they were pretending, and we wouldn’t understand the joke.
Stead’s Idyll Street is not a pop culture sitcom, of course, and thus has arguably even higher standards. What purpose is there to this story? What does it do other than trick the reader? What is shown here, what truth is illuminated, what irony about society is presented? Do all stories need to have a greater meaning? No. But a story needs to have a meaning within the framework it creates for itself. Stead writes firmly in the realist tradition, her characters have detailed, well described inner and outer lives. The streets, the shops, Jenny’s friends, the clothing people wear and the way everyone talks – all described. Jenny’s thoughts, too, range wide and become detailed on subjects that matter to her. All of these narrative devices add up to a certain expectation of meaning, but by tricking the reader Stead only infuriates them.
To end – the paragraph before we discover that Jenny and Gill are in fact married and always have been, shows Jenny thinking – hoping – dreaming – desiring – that perhaps this time, she could instead spend all day with Gill and their worlds could change:
…to go up with Gill at this moment when he knows she is expected elsewhere would be impossible, an extraordinary weakness, an inconceivable swoon of personality. There is danger in such disorder.
And then we discover it’s all a lie. The above quote is impossible to read as anything but the desire of a woman for a man she knows she cannot have. And Gill is nothing more than her husband of 40 years, a man she has every day, and can have every day into the future, and has had for four decades. The story exists entirely to deceive us, the readers.
A deeply disappointing story.
Our maybe – and I know this to be true about myself – I just don’t like being tricked, and don’t see the fun in it at all. A limitation of my own, perhaps?
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