You Might As Well Live

Life is a series of disappointments and reversals, "a process of breaking down," as Fitzgerald put it, and sometimes the earlier one has to deal with defeat, the harder it is to proceed. Any step forward is never as forceful as one crippling, corrective setback. This is true for many of the characters in Dorothy Parker's short stories, and it was true of Parker herself: After enjoying huge successes as a young writer, she then had to endure years of a career on the decline. While she always made so much out of death, she took forever to arrive at it. Parker lived out her later years on Scotch and in obscurity. "Don't feel badly when I die," she once told a friend, "because I've been dead for a long time."

Only a few of her short stories have diminished (the way she did) with age. (She is equally well known for her vituperative critical essays, her macabre poetry, and her withering witticisms.) All the fiction she ever published is collected in Penguin Books' Complete Stories, which has just been reissued with a new cover--illustrated by Al Hirschfeld--depicting Parker entering a door marked "Men." This suggests that Parker's literary distinction was that she was a feminist; but her more important contributions were as a stylist and social satirist. Still, this sleek, spidery line drawing is better suited to this book than the cover image on the previous edition, which featured an improbably cheerful portrait of Parker in a sunhat.

As for the setbacks that Parker's characters face, they often emerge (perplexingly) out of something someone has unwittingly done in the name of happiness. In "Here We Are," a young couple who have been married for exactly two hours and 26 minutes stare at each other in terror. "I don't see how people do it every day," she says. "[T]hink of all the people, all over the world, getting married just as if it was nothing. Chinese people and everybody. Just as if it wasn't anything." The story is a satire of bourgeois aspirations, but it also illustrates that change by its very nature is always violent; and it shows, in a subtle way, that getting married is just as horrible, tumultuous, and jarring as, oh, say, getting fired.

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Speaking of tumultuous changes: There is no truth to the rumor that Bumbershoot is doing away with their Bookfair--although according to official word last week, it is being "reinvented." The new Bookfair will boast DIY workshops and "artist-in-action stations," meaning there will be a lot less booth space for small local presses to hang banners and sell bad poetry. Says one organizer, "Living art has to change in order to remain both living and artful." While I have no idea what that means, I agree that the Bookfair has been a little lifeless of late, and could use a revamp.