Underground Reading: S*E*V*E*N by John D. MacDonald
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
S*E*V*E*N is a collection of seven short stories by John D. MacDonald. Four of the stories had been previously published in Playboy between 1967 and 1970, and S*E*V*E*N first hit the shelves in 1971, published by Fawcett as a Gold Medal paperback.
Six of the seven stories are essentially short vignettes into the alternatingly brutally-realistic and blackly-comedic world of John D. MacDonald (the exception is "The Annex", which is one of MacDonald's rare pieces of science fiction).
Although there's no ostensible theme to the collection (in fact, it comes devoid of foreward, afterword, or any sort of introduction), the stories are all connected by MacDonald's experimentation with the role of perception and the unreliable narrator.
In each of the stories, the ultimate twist (or twists) stems from a revelation that the primary story-teller (or story-tellers) is untrustworthy.
MacDonald further experiments with unreliable narrators by telling his stories in a variety of ways. In "The Random Noise of Love", the story oscillates between the spoken voice of a brash and irritating wife and the inner demons of her conflicted husband. "Dear Old Friend", predictably, is a story that takes place in the form of letters. Or, more precisely, one letter - drafted over and over again.
"The Willow Pool" is the most complex, as MacDonald uses a half-dozen different voices to tell the tragic story of a young woman. Pieces of her life are recounted through the eyes of her landlord, the police, her friends and her lover. The one absent voice, however, is the woman's own - which skillfully reflects the story's message of her lifelong, unvoiced plea for help. MacDonald used a similar style ten years earlier with The End of the Night, in which he constantly shifted the narrative, eventually concluding with the book's 'protagonist'.
"Woodchuck" and "Double Hannenframmis" both use the most traditional style - a single narrator. In both, however, the narrator contantly skirts the edge of his own story, eventually building to a moment of tragic self-awareness.
Perhaps the most complicated contribution to the collection - and also, oddly, the most amusing - is "Quarrel". A man lives next to a self-destructive couple. Nightly, he overhears their arguments through the thin walls of their shared building. As he is a strange and experimental artist, he records their arguments and begins the laborious process of turning them into art. Eventually, he has created a piece that wins the acclaim of the artistic community. In the ultimate test of his work, the artist plays it for the original couple. The man is horrified and stomps out, never to return. The woman responds with gales of laughter, and eventually marries the artist.
The story, already stacked with layers of perception, is packaged up neatly and recounted to the reader from yet another perspective - that of an aging, hippie, one of the artist's old friends. This adds a final, delicate layer to the whole mix. Although the artist and his wife have made a great break-through in the nature of perspective and communication (which the reader gets to see), the hippie doesn't actually care - from his point of view, his artist friend has 'sold out' to the establishment, and he just wants his friend back. "Quarrel" is largely an optimistic story, but this tiny layer of irony adds just the right note of depressing realism.
The final story, "The Annex", is the most ambitious component of the collection. The reader quickly learns that the entire story takes place solely in the narrator's mind (even if the narrator himself is not aware of this). "The Annex" is a disconcerting stretch from MacDonald's realistic style. Although an interesting challenge, it is probably the least interesting story in the collection, as well as being the hardest to follow.
Overall, S*E*V*E*N is a strong collection and provides an excellent and instructional view into MacDonald's ability to shuffle narrators and story-telling devices like an expert gambler.