The Strop is a place to whet your appetite for damn good stories. Check back every Friday for our latest recommendations. This week, the recommendations come from Wrangler editor Brandon Williams.
1. “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser
The films The Prestige and The Illusionist both famously came out the same year, are both based on literature (Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is a pretty damn good read, too), and both take liberties with their subject matter — which is great because no matter how many times I watch them, I can never remember if I’m thinking of the plot points from the story or the film, and so I’m always surprised. But even if you have a better memory than I do, Millhauser’s short story is worth a good, long read. There’s precious little plot, and none of the romance elements that push the film. It’s almost a study of Eisenheim, but written with the both the breathless zeal of a newspaper feature and also the careful awareness of a historical document. The story is available in The Barnum Museum.
2. “Secretary” by Mary Gaitskill
The film is built as a nontraditional romance, and there’s plenty to talk through with issues of consent and desire and power dynamics, conversations worth having with nuance and tact — which the film manages to handle relatively well. The short story comes at it in a vastly different manner: the emotional dissonance is striking, and the power imbalance is complicated in certain ways while stripped down to its most essential in other ways. Most importantly, from voice and tone and the deep malaise in which the narrator is stuck, we as readers are never allowed to forget exactly who this person is and how she has been affected by the situations over which she has no control. The story is available in Bad Behavior.
3. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
The film Arrival is interesting for a whole lot of reasons, including some really nifty directorial choices that manage to explore our relationship with time while also using subverting the viewer’s expectations of narrative. But Ted Chiang’s story is in many ways an entirely different experience: as a vehicle of the written word exploring the idea of language, it has the opportunity to consider its subject and the very nature of existence and purpose, as a result of the meta-level of writing language that is trying to understand and give meaning to language. I’ve taught these two pieces together a few times, and I’m always amazed by the fact that nearly uniformly, students prefer the story or the film based entirely on which one they experienced first. At least to me, that’s a mark of two pieces that each used their chosen medium incredibly well. The story is available in Stories of Your Life and Others.
4. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber
This is not a great movie, and it’s not a great story, either, but the different choices made by the two are interesting to explore. There’s a rather massive change in time period, naturally, which has no choice but to affect character in profound ways — but it’s more than simply a transformation in character. Rather, these two pieces come at their shared conceit with entirely different moral concerns: the film uses Walter’s fantasies to jumpstart the adventure of his actual life; the story alternately portrays his fantasies as the only place that he is allowed to be the person he wants to be. This is seen most completely by the opening and closing scenes of each piece: in the film, we start in reality and we end in a reality grasped; in the story, we begin in fantasy and end by making the decision of the climax in fantasy, after attempting to speak up and not having been heard in reality. Read it here.
5. And for good measure, one novel: “Serena” by Ron Rash
I am constantly amazed at two things about this film: one, how successfully it was buried, even though it’s been on streaming services for a good long while and features two major stars (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence); and two, how incredibly poorly they interpreted the novel. The movie is absolutely terrible, and there is no justifying the way they took the legitimately strong female character of the book and turned her into a cliché angry woman driven to madness by the death of her child and relationship. But, please listen to me: this book is incredible. It is impeccably plotted down to the tiniest of details, and it’s got a freaking group of characters that function as a chorus talking about events, and there’s a fight between an eagle and a Komodo dragon, oh and the title character literally terrifies everyone with the sheer force of her indomitable will. The ruthless way that Serena dispatches of her enemies, builds her empire, and takes care of all the problems her husband is unable to bring himself to handle (and watching the fear that overtakes him as he realizes how little control he has, and how far she is willing to go to ensure success) is a master class in both character and conflict building.