Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 77: Sherwood Anderson, The Untold Lie (#139)

Sherwood Anderson, "The Untold Lie" (1917) from Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories:

Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg" was the first story that I read for this project and it not only inspired me with a story idea, but I think it had a lot to do with my commitment to the project: I hadn't ever read the story before and I liked it so much, so who knows what else I would find by letting the Library of America be my guide?

"The Untold Lie" is another story of domestic, small-town failure; and what it lacks in comedy, it makes up for in technique, particularly POV. Which is maybe a good excuse to pause and note Anderson's own interesting story of financial failure and mental breakdown. As the LoA page notes, when his business was failing, he walked four days to Cleveland, which seems to have some thematic connection with one character's mad dash across the fields in "The Untold Lie."

That character is Ray Pearson, beaten-down family man, who works alongside devil-may-care youth Hal Winters. The narrator positions himself as an all-knowing townsman, summing up Hal simply and from the standpoint of "Everyone": "Hal was a bad one. Everyone said that." So the narrator can dip in to a private moment between Ray and Hal, when Hal asks Ray if it's worth it to get married and have kids, which is particurlary on his mind since he's got a girl in a family way. Ray doesn't answer immediately, but later, after his wife nags at him, he runs off to tell Hal not to sacrifice his life--but by that time, Hal has already decided to do the respectable thing.

Of course, that's the right thing to do, from society's POV; but we spend so long with Ray, and hear his story of ambition thwarted by family, that it becomes a little less clear. As Ray notes at the end, anything he said would have been a lie--family is both worth sacrifice and not worth sacrifice. And the feeling that Ray gets comes upon him suddenly; yes, his wife says one thing that might be nagging, but it's only one. What really does it is... something else:
The beauty of the country about Winesburg was too much for Ray on that fall evening. That is all there was to it. He could not stand it.
Wait, what? Ray hasn't been presented as a particularly aesthetic or land-oriented guy. That "That is all there was to it" is both marking an area that we can't ask about and an area where no answer is presented yet. Similarly, at the end, when he realizes that he would lie no matter what he said, we quickly move from Ray as center of the story to Ray as no one:
“It’s just as well. Whatever I told him would have been a lie,” he said softly, and then his form also disappeared into the darkness of the fields.
What what? Anderson doesn't play much with complicated words or complex syntactic constructions. Instead his simple comments are heavily freighted with pressurized meaning. "The Untold Lie" is a story of blow-ups and crack-ups, either had or repressed.

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