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.
Sometimes you can read the opening few sentences of a short story and know immediately that you are going to enjoy it. At his best, Châteaureynaud provides this sense of certainty, and I can say with great pleasure that many of the stories in A Life on Paper have begun in such a manner, and continued strongly. Écorcheville has among the strongest openings in the collection, and as for the rest of the story – but let’s touch on that in a moment.
The story opens with a man, Orne, contemplating the latest addition to the city of Écorcheville. There has been something of an “automation” craze recently, with automated phone booths and so on appearing about Écorcheville. The most recent is an automated shooting booth, which puzzles Orne both in a commercial and an ethical sense.
How many shootings would it take per month to pay the upkeep alone? Even though it was all in theory automatic and self-cleaning, someone had to pay workers to remove the bodies and gunsmiths to regulate and reload the weaponry.
He is somewhat amused by the idea, but then both he and the story forgets about them for a while. Still, the reader is aware of them, and as Chekhov’s gun illustrates, if it exists in the first act, it’ll need to be used in the third, and so – the second act of the story (such as it is) is devoted to an explanation of Orne, and then a meeting between himself, a few other guests at a party, and a gypsy woman with a psychic parrot.
Orne, it seems, is a pleasant enough fellow, but he is ugly, unlucky in love, and unlucky in business. He is tolerated by his friends and acquaintances, but not loved – he doesn’t quite have the vivacity of personality for that. He is one of those people with whom you enjoy seeing at a social event, but with whom you would never wish to spend any significant time alone. Not because anything bad would happen, but – well, he’s just a little dull.
At a party, a gypsy woman proffers the fortune telling services of her parrot, a grey, nasty thing who, nonetheless, is able to infallibly answer a question concerning the time of one’s death. One of the wealthy men in attendance, Propinquor, tests out the bird, and is pleased to know he has “more than fifty years” to live. He declines to learn of the years in any greater specificity. Orne, goaded by the others, tries as well. He asks the bird if he has over a year to live – no. Over a month – no. Over a week – no.
Nobody else is much concerned, but Orne is shaken. So shaken, in fact, that he breaks out of his lifelong stupor in order to proposition a woman he has loved in secret for a very long time. She rejects him and, despondent, Orne walks the city until he stumbles upon one of the automated shooting booths.
Now here is where the story can take a number of turns. Does Orne shoot himself and thus make the prophecy of the bird true? Does he avoid being shot and instead get hit by a bus? Does he avoid being shot and live out the week, and then the month, and then the year? Or does he shoot himself and linger in great agony for eight days before expiring? Châteaureynaud avoids any of these (obvious) options, instead electing to introduce a poor young woman and her child, who wish to commit suicide via the shooting booth because they are poor, miserable, and unhappy. Orne protests the need for death, and she asks him:
“Will you marry me, feed and raise him? No, of course not!”
And then within seconds they are dead. Orne is shaken – the “of course not” threw him. She was right – he would never have married her and looked after him – but why not? He had no real love in his life, and this could have offered an avenue of sorts. But he doesn’t, wouldn’t, and never did throughout his whole life. With only a week to go before he is dead, these thoughts disturb Orne to no end – and then the story itself ends.
The “death” of Orne is, perhaps, the death of his stupor, his lack of interaction with the world. There is a strong sense that he has been jolted into the land of the living, that he will no longer be content to simply carry on, and this could perhaps indicate the death to which the parrot eluded. It isn’t clear that this is the case (I suppose the bus could hit him minutes after the final sentence), but I’d like to think it is true.
Écorcheville begins with a very strong opening, and then spends much of the rest of the story doing other things. The delayed interaction with the automated shooting booth enhances its appeal and the sense of anticipation, and then when we finally do experience it in action, the results are wholly different from what we expect. These acts of reader-subversion show Châteaureynaud at his strongest.
|Publisher||Small Beer Press|
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