I, etcetera

Susan Sontag

After reading Against Interpretation, these stories are as cerebral and absent of symbolic content as I expected. Sontag plays with form rather than creating complex plots laden with meanings, and there isn’t an extensive amount of descriptive detail. Nearly all the stories are written from some kind of first person perspective, though not in the traditional narrative sense in which it enables a feeling that the reader is somehow inside that character’s mind, privy to any passing thought. In “Old Complaints Revisited,” the narrator admits to purposefully obfuscating their identity:

But I don’t want to go into too much detail. I’m afraid of your losing the sense of my problem as a general one.

That’s why I have made a point of not making it clear whether I’m a man or a woman. And I don’t think I will — because, either way, it might subtract from the point of what I’m trying to explain.

This form-focused approach to short fiction makes reading more of an exercise in deducing what Sontag is trying to do rather than what she’s trying to say. Her stories don’t have overarching messages or morals, instead they come across as intellectual puzzles in the basic sense of figuring out what is happening, since the viewpoints of the characters can be so unreliable. In “Baby,” two parents take turns visiting a counselor about their child, each section headed by a day of the week, as if it’s all comprised of transcriptions of just their side of the dialogue with this counselor. Despite the supposed chronology of the weeks passing, the story doesn’t appear to progress in the same linear manner, and their statements often seem contradictory. It’s not even clear which parent is speaking at a time. Yet it’s a strangely seductive story, if you can let it unfold without forcing the pieces into some kind of shape or representation of a psychological truth, which is, of course, what Sontag hoped art could do. “Debriefing,” with its very evocative New York City setting, about a woman with a depressed friend, includes one of my favorite lines:

I exhort, I interfere. I’m impatient. For God’s sake, it isn’t that hard to live. One of the pieces of advice I give is: Don’t suffer future pain.