I bought a discarded collection of short stories from a bankrupt library a few weeks ago, the inside cover displays the dates of the five times it was checked out. Edited by Zadie Smith and published by Penguin, The Book of Other People collects shorts from Daniel Clowes, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer and David Mitchell, among others.
Being semi-ambitious, I plan to read and review each short. Not in any sort of literary context, but in the context of my personality. I am not trying to be objective.
By David Mitchell
This story made me feel, initially, disgusting. David Mitchell is an impressive chameleon, taking over the voice of a character as naturally as any normal person speaks. Of course, when you read a story that’s as honest as Judith Castle, no matter how pathetic or annoying the protagonist is, you’ll find a way to connect with that character.
That’ what made me feel disgusting.
The titular character, Judith, is a mid-fifties divorcee. The story opens with a phone call from Leo, the brother of Judith’s supposed lover. Leo is calling to report that Olly, her lover, is dead.
She spends most of the short walking around her small village, throwing off her grieving on those around her, almost using it like a play thing. Eventually, she realizes that people treat her with more care once they find out her lover is dead. Judith capitalizes on this by gradually stretching out the details.
Near the end, she tells a hotel assistant that her husband was recently killed in Iraq. The assistant gives Judith a free upgrade.
The story ends with Judith in a small shop, a few moments shy of introducing herself to Leo. She overhears a conversation he is having on the phone before she can explain who she is.
“He’s not answering the phone for a day or two. He met this woman on the Internet, right – yeah , I know, how dodgy is that? So they meet up, just the once, just a week ago, right, in Bath – and in sink those talons…Like she’s desperate to be loved, but she punces on anyone who might love her, so desperately, so hungrily, the run a mile! What?…Oh, that’s the funniest part I meant to say he’d had a heart attack.”
Obviously, disgustingly, after Mitchell draws in the reader and makes us feel empathetic with Judith, it’s revealed that she’s insane and lonely and needed, and even more that, it’s revealed to the reader that we’re insane and lonely and needy. I think that’s what good literature does, it makes us notice something about ourselves.
What this story made me feel was disgust. I think I love it for that reason, though I don’t hope to read anything like it for a long while.