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Short and Sour


"Le Rêve est une seconde vie". / "Dreams are a second life".
Aurélia, Gérard de Nerval

Photo by Johannes Plenio on



He’d heard that the short-story was in its last syllable of extinction. Publishers met submissions with wonder as if offered scratchings on parchment. They were kind as to a naive child and sent him home to grow up and write a big fat novel.


Curious about the demise of the short form, he learned that once the important magazines had shrivelled there was no short-story venue left  even for celebrity writers, which, of course, he was not. As for readers on the bottom rung, they preferred to watch screens and play at omniscience with their telephones. Looking into bloated paperbacks labelled fiction, he admired the muscle of their authors. However, he was no more inclined to compete with them than to row across the Atlantic like one of those lusty loners he also admired.


Instead, he kept turning out his driblets of whimsey or occasional grimness. He  refused to connect with how things were in what he heard called the real world. For him it was only someone else’s world just as his was unique to himself. When his pile of snippets got so high it threatened to topple into confusion, he put together a handful of pieces he had a weakness for and got them published.


He wasn’t disappointed in the reaction but surprised that there was any feedback at all. Reading the scarce reviews was for him like reading someone else’s short stories. A comment that defined his imaginings as “psychic tics” caught his fancy in particular. He thought it could figure as the title of a second collection as “Tics and Tocks”.


For in the meantime the big clock never stopped ticking and sent him ever higher into the thin air of bemusement. Revelation by graceful muse had long since been forsaken. Asking himself questions, though, hung on like eczema. He persisted to obsession. Aloft in the empty realm of the short story, he slept and dreamed. 


Was it not a waste, he wondered to spend hours asleep fantasising every night and making nothing of it in the morning? Recounting one’s dreams, alas, wasn’t the answer. Nothing was more deadly for a dawning day than for a partner to say, “I had such an amazing dream last night, listen to this.”


That was because a dream retold never captured what the dreamer felt while dreaming. A dreamer’s amazement was uniquely his own. When transferred to words it fell into fragments of a possible short story that no one had yet put together. The question was one the writer never ceased chewing on. 


When broadsided one night in deep sleep by a preposterous scenario, he couldn’t simply drop it on waking. If Pedro Calderòn was right in 1635 with his play, ‘La vida es sueño’, (Life is a Dream), didn’t it mean that a dream was also life? And life was all we had to hold onto, not to be wasted.


The writer had then been submerged in a night’s mad adventure. It began with him  fussing about with the small furniture of dreams. These are hard solid items. They recall nothing so much as similar objects in countless stories. Compare the handheld fan in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ or Edgar Allan Poe’s  much sat on “huge grey rock” in his ‘Silence, a Fable’. In dreams these intrusive objects bristle with urgency and anxiety but hardly figure in the main action. A short-storywriter would have to bring them in line and make them functional. This night they consisted of a list stubbornly compiled and a footlong ruler.


The dreamer had been thrown into something that never much concerned him. What had he ever had to do with a boxing match except in a seat at a safe distance? Now in the ring with the gloves on, he didn’t trade punches but kept landing them on a hapless adversary. Something was wrong with his opponent. He seemed physically all there but in a walking coma.


The situation astounded the dreamer’s regular second self, the mature and nervous commentator who observed his junior’s dream comportment with paternal concern. The bout continued without a bell to mark rounds and all the rigmarole about sitting on a stool in a corner and spitting into a bucket. Here dreaming approached writing again. A short story has to be elliptic and selective about details. But a dream taken as story once more proved wonky. An author of a short story has to leave the right details out. Subtraction must make sense, add meaning.


Showing no mercy, the dreaming writer kept raining blows. There was no referee to declare a technical K.O. A cumbersome bundle—a big neatly tied and legless package—got into the ring. That would have been a misstep in a short-story recipe where there is no room for a red herring. Regardless, the one-sided fight went on until our man’s dream self was declared the winner. 


Here the vaunted punchline of the classic short-story—see O. Henry—bumbled and crashed. Meaning was lost in an irrational move by who or whatever concocts dreams. That dream-master wanted to have it both ways. The macho effort of the  writer-prizefighter had his arm raised in victory. The dollar reward was his. However, without explanation, the much battered opponent—breaking news!—was granted an infinitely  greater cash prize for what reason exactly we were not let in on. An abrupt curtain fell. Breakfast time.


The writer awake would have to continue musing. Asleep he had only confirmed what he always  felt.  We live in a dreamlike chaos. It can be made sense of only in make-believe stories, long or short.


To spur pretending, he reached for ‘O Henry: 100 Selected Stories’, a stout volume of William Sydney Porter’s tales. Their worldview was as outdated as our grandfather’s, but it was soothing in its simplicity. The last words of the last story, page 735, referred to the key character: “Murray had dreamed the wrong dream.” The sentence ended a manuscript found in Porter—O.Henry’s room after his death. The Cosmopolitan Magazine that commissioned the story had been waiting for delivery.


Peter Byrne

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