Introductions and Sarah Frisch’s “Housebreaking”

Details October session Reading Circle 2013


Welcome fellow bibliophiles and literati to the 2013 installment of the IIE library’s English-language reading circle. I’ll be moderating our first two sessions, beginning next Tuesday, October 29th. Peter’s left some sizeable shoes to fill in his absence, but I’m eager to get to the good work of literary interpretation, criticism, and general contemplation.

This year’s theme is deceptively simple: American Short Stories from Contemporary Literary Journals. But as is the case with all things meaningful, the devil is in the details, or, as it were, the modifiers. Rather than clarify our purpose in reading, the above begs a series of open-ended questions: ‘American’ how? Is ‘Literary’ a stable descriptor, or does it depend on the medium as much as the message? And can a ‘Journal’ really be ‘Contemporary’ in this day and age? These are meaningful questions that deserve thoughtful responses; in other words, the perfect fodder for our circle.

In approaching the cycle through our first story, Sarah Frisch’s “Housebreaking,” I encourage you to consider these questions in the context of The Paris Review, an undeniably canonical (if we can apply that term to a publication, and perhaps we cannot, you tell me) bastion of global literariness if ever there was one. Taking this logic a step further, we might consider too the dynamics of contributing to a prestigious journal, and how that authority exercises something like poetic soft power on the work published. Then again, maybe power in this arena isn’t what it used to be. Is the struggle to attain literary prestige still an insider’s game, where certain ladders must be climbed in order to appease the legislators of cultural sensibility? Or is literary prestige itself a vanishing (or perhaps mutating) commodity, given the explosion of independent media platforms in our digital and heteroglossic age? Has the world changed? Have we?

These last two questions echo throughout “Housebreaking,” and Frisch does a compelling job exploring them in the fullness of their complexity. Complexity and its critical mass are among the governing themes of the piece, and ideas I’d to tease out in our meeting next week. Rather than delve too deeply into meat better served in company, I’ll list yet another series of questions that I hope will guide your reading of a story that, like our cycle, is deceptive in its simplicity:

–          Where and how can we locate the phenomenon of crisis in this piece? How does epistemology, the nature of knowing, evolve over the course of the story? What does the title have to do with it? How about the epigraph?

–          What does the story tell us about the difference between morality and ethics? Ideology and love? How to think and how to act?

–          Why does Seamus allow Miranda to take him to the doctor?

–          What does “being right” mean here?

These are just a few of many lines of attack we can follow when we come together next week. If you’re inclined to foment discussion virtually by adding a comment below, then by all means have at it. I look forward to meeting all of you soon, and can’t wait to get our hands dirty sifting through stories.

Andrew Bennett.

2 comments on “Introductions and Sarah Frisch’s “Housebreaking”

  1. Ana Alonso says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for the posting and for agreeing to take over for Peter these first few meetings. I found HOUSEBREAKING complex and your questions challenging. I will try to respond to one of them as a way to generate ideas about the piece and to start my gray matter working in preparation of our discussion next week.


    We need look no further than Seamus, the main character of the story to find the crisis. Seamus and his emotional development are the focal point of the story and what drives the action. He is depressed when the story begins and his character only devolves from there. We see through back-story that even though his trip to Pakistan shakes his faith and adherence to Christian Science, it doesn’t really change him.

    His faith has helped him live in a dream even though he knew it wasn’t real. This goes to Seamus’ essential crisis. He cannot live in a world that does not, as he puts it, ‘express harmony and perfection in all things.’ He doesn’t respond in the critical way he should in Pakistan—he doesn’t even expect Melinda to attempt a different role no matter how challenging it would be with the men in their group, and does not help the little boy whose (father, uncle?) has been hit by a drone. Then, instead of examining the quandary his life is in, he returns to the U.S., listless and ineffectual.

    He is passive in his relationship with Charity much like a supplicant worshipping an idol. What is his actual connection to her? Can he seriously be involved with someone who works for a company that opposes climate change? Does he ever doubt her commitment to the relationship when she leaves early for work and arrives home late? Seamus is so self-deluded and depressed, he can’t even imagine that Charity has not made the break with Greg nor with Greg’s mother.

    Alas, it is no real surprise in the end that Seamus is left alone.

    Perhaps my response will generate some additional comments from our group.

  2. Thank you Patty for your insightful and thought-provoking comments! I agree that Seamus’ expectations (or lack thereof) largely define his experience and his crisis. Do you (and the rest of our group) feel that his reluctance to think ahead is in some way liberating for him, or further proof of his inability to deal with the real world? Let’s talk more about this tomorrow, see you all then!

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