Saturday, March 1, 2014

What Kind of Party Is This?

 
 
"Dance of the Happy Shades" is one of those short stories that has a meaning and sentiment so effortlessly deep you almost have to reread it to grasp its gravity, and to remember it in all its glory.  In fact I remember reading it way back in the day, when I was trying to teach myself how to write, and I think it must have left a radioactive pellet in my brain.   Reading it again the other day felt like some kind of secret and gorgeous electro shock therapy.  I was bawling by the denouement.  That power comes from the tenacity of the voice, a chatty but sharp and almost grim evocation of a sad, sad party in which Miss Marsalles, an elderly piano teacher, shows off the students she is teaching with a sandwiches-and-punch recital in her home. 
 
The plot follows the day all the way through in the point of view of one of her students who isn't impressed, and whose mother seems almost disgusted by Miss Marselles' lack of cleanliness, and by the fact that she is old and unmarried and living with her sister who just had a stroke.  Miss Marselles' home, her sandwiches, her flat purple punch all contribute to a drab, melancholy atmosphere that gets somehow exonerated with the appearance of children from a "special school."  Miss Marselles visits them and teaches them at the school, and she includes them in her recital without making a big deal out of it.  But all the other mothers and children seem shocked by their sudden appearance.  And when one of them, Dolores Boyles, a "a girl as big as I am, a long-legged, rather thin and plaintive-looking girl with blonde, almost white hair," sits down and plays the piano with strange and undeniable grace, the room changes, as does the way we suddenly have access to Miss Marselles' soul.  All the peripherals disappear.  The piano teacher's life comes into focus in such a grand and succinct way we suddenly understand what it means to actually be alive without having to struggle with ego and meanness and self delusion.  We know what it means to live within a self-imposed realm of grace and kindness.  
 
It takes the appearance of a "freak" like Dolores Boyles to show us how to release Miss Marsalles from the category the narrator wants to consign her to.  Dolores Boyles is also released.  The representation of both in that moment has a magical matter-of-factness:  "Miss Marselles sits beside the piano and smiles at everybody in her usual way.  Her smile is not triumphant, or modest.  She does not look like a magician who is watching people's faces to see the effect of a rather original revelation -- nothing like that.  You would think, now that at the very end of her life she has found someone whom she can teach -- whom she must teach -- to play the piano, she would light up with the importance of this discovery.  But it seems that the girl's playing like this is something she always expected, and she finds it natural and satisfying; people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when they actually encounter one."
 
Damn.
 
That's all I ever want when I try to write:  that sense of complete understanding delivered without decoration or apology, just given to us like a letter from a saner and more poetic plane of existence.