Short Story Club: “A Tiny Feast”

Seconds out, round two: this week’s short story is “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian. And the commentary round-up begins with Perpetual Folly:

I hate cancer stories. There are too many of them and it is too easy to make them overly sentimental and melodramatic. But this one is different. This one is so highly original (in a Shakespeare-derivative way) that it overcomes all of my objections. I think this is one terrific story.

Patrice Sarath:

loved this story, for the fantasy and the heart and the humor and the humanity and the sorrow. If you love good fantasy, you will pick up a copy of the April 20 New Yorker. You will not be disappointed. For some reason I always get my New Yorker way the hell past the time the rest of the country does (maybe it has trouble clearing customs? Thank you Rick Perry) so it might not be available on newsstands anymore, but do your best.

I hope that this is nominated for a World Fantasy award, as well as an O’Henry and any other literary award out there. I wish that the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror were still being published, because this story would have pride of place. Thankfully there are other Year’s Best fantasies. David Hartwell and Katherine Cramer, are you listening? Please read this story and reprint it. Please.

Jacob Russell:

Chris Adrian’s “A Tiny Feast” is an almost miraculous realization of the mystery of death, of the power of its visitation, of how it astonishes us into recognition of love–how is it possible for anything to be at once, “so awesome and so utterly powerless?”

Oh, and how do we account for the strange ways of medicine and therapeutic care, the magic of which is not love… but indifference?

Paul Debraski:

The supernatural quality of the story takes the edge off of what is, in fact, a story of a child dying of cancer. But since the point of view is that of immortal beings who simply cannot comprehend the details of medicine, cancer or suffering, it takes some of the pain away from the plot and focuses it on the parents’ frustration. The immortals feel grief for the first time and don’t know quite how to deal with it. And when they finally do return home, they feel just as lost as they felt with their new feelings.

I really enjoyed this story, it was quite odd, but very well done. I also appreciated how it showed the suffering that parents go through at a distance, allowing the suffering to seem more real for being so confusing. I can’t imagine what cuased the full inspiration for it.

And three Torque Control readers, first David Hebblethwaite:

I think this piece is wonderful, in more than one sense of that word. Adrian does a superb job of working through the ramifications of his fantastical idea. Most obviously, perhaps, there’s going to be humour in the juxtaposition of traditional faeries and modern society – and so there is: witness, for example, the method Titania finds for playing a Carly Simon LP, before ‘[singing] to the boy about his own vanity’; or the times when the faeries’ glamour drops, and the medical staff become dazzled by the very presence of Titania and Oberon.

Yet there’s another, less playful, side to ‘A Tiny Feast’. Adrian makes some telling observations (‘The doctors called the good news good news, but for the bad news they always found another name’), but the heart of his story concerns the emotional trajectory of the characters, and Titania in particular. At first, the boy is just another changeling to her (she never even gives him a name); gradually, though, she comes to care about him – but the story-logic by which the faeries live has the final say. It makes the tale not only a fine piece of fantasy in its own right, but also a striking metaphor for how we may react to the terminal illness of a loved one.

Chance:

“A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian is a darkly comic rendering of the cancer ward. Anyone who has logged a bit of time in the foreign world that is a cancer ward[1] will recognize a lot of these moments (the one that hit home the most for me was walks with the iv stand), the strangeness that Titania and Oberon feel and their alien reaction is not far from what any family feels. It is their comic frustration that makes them their most human.
[…]
While it encapuslizes the helplessness of a parent with a sick child- that’s exactly the problem – Titania and Oberon have been too normalized at this point. It was the jarring conflict between our world and theirs (and mine and the cancer ward) that made this story work for me.

And a dissenting opinion by Evan at Association List:

I thought that this one was well written, but otherwise failed on most other levels. I have to admit some bias, in that I have essentially no interest in fantasy specifically featuring fairies. It’s a trope at this point that has been so brutally overused that it’s hard to imagine it having any sort of resonance with anyone at this point. I realize that my point of view clearly isn’t shared, so I’ll try to put it aside. The story imagines one of the changelings taken by the fairy court, Oberon and Titania and the whole lot, getting leukemia and going into treatment. In terms of playing the conflict in a humorously deadpan way and depicting the process in an accurate way, the author gets high marks, but as a story it never really gets anywhere, or says anything, or really has any characters. Any one of those could be fine, of course, but at some point the story just falls down, when you decline to provide your readers with any reason to care.

If we’re to read this straight, Oberon and Titania are fairies and so at least somewhat alien and distanced from human concerns. It’s never clear why either of them should care about this particular changeling over any other, other than he’s sick. The author never bothers to make them human characters, nor does he manage to make them convincingly alien. They speak on one hand from a desire for the story to move forward, and on the other from a desire by the author to make the story humorous.

Over the course of the stories, interactions are detailed, scenes are set, jokes are constructed and delivered. The boy sickens, recovers, sickens more, and dies. Nothing else actually happens. No point is delivered, nor is one possible to infer, given the half-assed inhumanity of the characters.

It strikes me that the author had a neat idea for a story, then didn’t realize that his conceit didn’t have legs enough to stand alone at such length. Maybe he had some inkling, hence the jokiness, the places where it’s overwritten. Halfway to Rembrandt Comic Book territory, more or less. Still, in the end, it stacks up to more or less nothing interesting, and the author, while clever and skilled, simply isn’t writing at the level where you’ll stick around to listen to him talking about anything, just because the prose is so good.

And so we reach the end without me having said much interesting or clever, but I feel that the conceit here doesn’t stand up to criticism any better than it stands up to reading; that it is, in fact, a conceit and only provides the critic with his thinnest gruel, stylistic analysis. I am hoping that I’m missing something, and that some of the other commenters will provide a view of the story that illuminates a more interesting angle from which to view the story.

Over to the rest of you: what did you think? Why?

36 Responses to “Short Story Club: “A Tiny Feast””

  1. SF Strangelove Says:

    The dual layers of “A Tiny Feast” work well: ordinary world and faerie, mortality and immortality, emotional vulnerability and aloofness. As I read this the two layers overlap and merge and shift focus. On the surface, the king and queen of faerie are humbled by unfamiliar human emotions of grief and helplessness over their dying adopted son. Underneath (which is cleverly presented as the false glamour that the faeries project) is an ordinary self-involved yuppie couple whose bland lives are made magnificent by their emotional turmoil and grief. The effect is transient in both layers of reality.

    The writing only hiccupped twice for me:

    “Within a few days, the poisons had made him peaceful. Titania could not conceive of the way they were made, except as distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair, since that was how she made her own poisons, shaking drops of terror out of a wren captured in her fist, or sucking with a silver straw at the tears of a dog.”

    This was distracting, in an “oh, the author is showing off” reaction. I gave it a pass since on reflection it added to the story.

    “Titania was the only one among them ever to have ridden on a roller coaster, but she didn’t offer up the experience as an analogy, because it seemed insufficient to describe a process that to her felt less like a violent unpredictable ride than like someone ripping your heart out one day and then stuffing it back in your chest the next.”

    This didn’t work and came across as a writer’s intrusion. I can’t really imagine Titania, or her ordinary equivalent pondering word choice like a writer.

    Overall: strong concept, strong execution, strong emotional payoff. Very fine indeed.

  2. Abigail Says:

    It’s a very beautifully written story, and very persuasive in its descriptions both of life in a cancer ward and the process of accompanying a sick child through difficult treatments (Adrian is, I believe, a pediatrician, which is probably where a lot of this persuasive detail is coming from). Like Chance, I was won over, but like Evan, I have to wonder whether the story transcends its central gimmick. Or, to put it another way, it’s precisely because this is a clever idea executed well that I’m a little disappointed with it. I kept expecting the story to have an extra bit of kick, something to cut through its polish. There are a few moments where I felt it came close – when the doctor tries to talk to Oberon and Titania about easing the boy’s suffering, for example – but not completely.

    Still, this is a slightly churlish criticism. It’s a fine story, and though I come short of the hyperbole in the quotes above, I did like it very much.

  3. Niall Says:

    Clearly I am destined to miss at one post by a TC reader each week. Sorry!

  4. Rich Horton Says:

    My brief comment from my Locus review: “Chris Adrian’s “A Tiny Feast” is particularly good, a beautifully written and extremely moving story about a changeling adopted by Titania and Oberon who is dying of leukemia. The story powerfully describes a parent’s struggle with their child’s treatment, as if it were mainstream, but also uses the faeries’ actual fantastical nature to good (and not simply metaphorical) effect. And lines like “It seemed a marvel to her that any mortal should suffer for lack of love, and yet she had never known a mortal who didn’t feel unloved. There was enough love just in this ugly hallway, she thought, that no one should ever feel the lack of it again.” really hit home.”

    One point to make — one thing I liked is that Adrian refused to allow the reader to think this was all just metaphor. Oberon and Titania are really the King and Queen of the Fairies — and I think they are portrayed believably as exactly that. Yet I still managed to believe in their care for the boy.

    And, Patrice, if Chris Adrian is willing, I think you will get your wish that the story is reprinted in a “Best SF/Fantasy” book …

  5. Rose Fox Says:

    Ooh, apparently this week I get to be the only one who thought it was terrible from beginning to end, with three exceptions: “They poisoned the boy exquisitely”, “Oberon’s mighty thrusting bottom”, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle–esque description of the titular feast. About halfway through it I announced to my partner that I wanted to set the New Yorker offices on fire. Had it not been for the “club”, I would have stopped after the first paragraph, a flat recitation of referenceless pronouns and clear signals that this is a story about awful failures who fail awfully. I don’t have Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road handy, so please insert his rant about New Yorker stories here; to my recollection, it describes this sort of thing perfectly.

    The people in stories like these do not experience love in any way that is recognizable to me. It’s all jealousy and grasping and misery and bickering and pain pain pain. I have a tremendously difficult time reading about it in romantic relationships; to read about it in parent/child relationships leaves me wanting to use words like “vile perversion” that I would not ordinarily use to describe the content of fiction. I would rather read furry incest porn than another story about parents who hate themselves and their partners and their children and call it love.

    I don’t think my sensitivity to this particular story comes from having recently lost a loved one to cancer, though it did put me in a position to note that the description of the effects of morphine and the appalling ugliness of hospitals and so on were pretty apt. The stuff about cancer and medicine didn’t even bother me. The poisonous love, the child as relationship pawn, the suggestion that Titania is a better person because she comes to value the boy while Oberon sees him only as a Freudian challenge, Titania actually only valuing the boy because he surprises her out of her customary ennui: those things nauseate me.

    There’s some nasty sexism in the comparison of Oberon’s stern parenting style, which creates usefulness, to Titania’s simpering fawning, which encourages weakness and dependency (“Oberon had trained previous changelings to be pages or attendants for her… But the boy only hit her when she presented him with the brush, and instead she found herself brushing his hair.”). There’s extra bonus nasty sexism in that weakness and dependency appearing in the only changeling who ever falls ill. There’s just plain nastiness in the weak, dependent changeling being the only one they ever love. Absent hateful fathers create unlovable but useful children, while obsessive doting manipulative mothers create useless but lovable children. Are they supposed to be redeemed because they loved this child but used and neglected all the others? UGH.

    Usually I would be able to get past my very personal, emotional reaction to talk about the language (featureless), the structure (unremarkable), the characterization (one-dimensional along a completely unappealing axis), or other elements of the story’s construction, but I’m too disgusted and incensed to actually engage my critical faculties very well, so this stands as my “review”. I hope I like next week’s story better or I might have to drop out to save myself.

  6. rreugen Says:

    Hello, I am Radu and this is my first comment here.

    I didn’t manage to finish the story – after the first third I started skipping more and more of it.

    For me, the situations depicted appear very superficial and don’t really paint anything. Leukemia, inevitability of death, none of it created a compelling, revealing, truly dramatic situation because the characters that experience the situations do not seem (to me) to be any of those things. We are told that they are fairies, but they are not that weird, or alien, so that by exploring their character I could feel at least the joy of the explorer who finds new things.

    I am afraid there is not much (nothing?) about the human spirit, or the fairies (maybe that they can develop rudiments of human feeling, but I think I read similar ideas in too many stories) that this story says (to me). I read this morning the rest of it and I didn’t understand what it was supposed to say.

    I am not very well read, and my English is self-taught, so I’m sorry if my comment seems rudimentary.

    R.

  7. Martin Says:

    I didn’t care for the story but I found it hard to pin down why. A lot of the writing is wonderful, although I did sometimes stumble over the dissonance of the real/faerie world. So, for example, “Oberon’s mighty thrusting bottom” seems rather too broad a line to deploy at that point of the story.

    Obviously the story gets most of its affect from this dissonance but it did trouble me as well. It is something that has been picked up in a few of the comments but how much are Titania and Oberon metaphors? The consensus seems to be that they are not (or, at least, not primarily). If I do not read them as metaphors than I have trouble believing in Titania’s transformation. It is the whole point of the story but it seems rather too convenient, alien but also human, have your cake and eat it. If I do read them as metaphors, on the other hand, I run into similar problems to Rose.

  8. Matt Denault Says:

    The base conceit was very imaginative and much of the writing quite fine, but the story overall felt just a bit tedious at times. The New Yorker has such a reputation of favoring unsentimental stories that one could basically predict the entirety of this one from its initial setup. And so the question becomes, is the journey worthwhile? To which I’d say yes, but barely. The story felt to me like a series of extended set-ups for single lines of insight, humor, evocation, pathos. Those single moments were often good, but I wasn’t always convinced by the set-ups: starting from the idea of Oberon and Titania in San Francisco; them coming to care for this boy; and so forth.

    The excellence and the tediousness of the story are, for me, both captured by the line near the end: “Indifference was the key to her magic; she could do nothing for someone she loved.” Its excellence consists of it being both an imaginative answer to a question that had nagged at me throughout the story — why aren’t these magical beings doing more to save the child — and also a tidy summation of insight. We distance ourselves because to care is to be hurt, to be rendered powerless or reminded of our powerlessness; and modern medicine is very much the new magic, capricious and incomprehensible — it has rendered even the old magic of Fairy powerless; and also, yes, indifference gives a sort of fey power. I suspect that the author has seen all these things as part of his day job, which lends the story, and this line in particular, an emotional authority. The line, moreover, feels like a willingness of the story to (as great stories must) challenge its own telling, its lack of sentiment — perhaps even challenge the lack of sentiment of its expected readership. But the tediousness of this is that it is an expected challenge, a challenge so filled with irony and that sense of powerlessness that it cannot be a real, sustained challenge. It’s just a flicker, a moment, a single line that validates for the reader feel that yes, they’re still human…and then the inhumans of the story carry the boy’s body away in all their fairy majesty, and we humans can go back to being indifferent.

    It reads like a story that is afraid to be loved.

  9. Nick Says:

    My biggest problem with this story was simply this: at the end, I could not decide if the boy would have been better off if he had lived. I had a lot of trouble getting past the fact that the boy was kidnapped and subsequently parented incredibly poorly, to the point that his future looked bleak regardless of what happened to him. I liked many of the details of the story, but the lack of empathy I had for Oberon and Titania at any point made the story essentially empty for me.

  10. Alexander Says:

    I liked this one a lot. For me, the alieness of the characters to the modern world worked. Starting off I was very unsure of the value of this scenario, but ultimately ‘Fairy Royalty in a Hospital’ worked. Particularly in how strange and bizarre the medical environment served, it’s a metaphor that works. I liked the ending irony of magic helping only the objects of indifference, it was a useful and potent turning on its head of the expected magic scenario.

    At the same time I agree with Abigail to a large extent, for all its pathos and fine construction the story seemed a bit under ambitious, somewhat limited in its use of genre and real world elements. For me, it seemed at least in part due to using the fairy queen trope that’s been so often and famously used. There was a sense of Adrian borrowing familiar devices without truly remaking them, in a sense risking this story sinking into the overly generic despite its beauty.

  11. Karen Burnham Says:

    Don’t have time to write much, but I’m also on the side that wasn’t as impressed by this one. I didn’t have any trouble finishing it; it was well crafted enough. But it never engaged me the way I’d hoped. I think I was always too aware of the Titania/Oberon symbolism and metaphor for the story to work on a literal level. I was always reading it intellectually and it never swept me away emotionally. Unfortunately (though this may simply be a mis-wiring in my brain) I was more moved by the statement towards the end that Beastie had died of grief than I was by the actual death of the boy.

    I do agree that the actual Tiny Feast scene was a wonderful one, though.

  12. Niall Says:

    Apologies for not joining in here sooner: I’ve been busy. Some brief thoughts, hopefully with more to follow tomorrow.

    1. I liked it, but not as much as I wanted to like it.

    2. I think Abigail has nailed it when she suggests that it needed “something to cut through its polish”. There’s nothing visceral in the story; the suffering is so carefully detailed that it ends up being sanitized. I’m surprised that Matt indicated he found it unsentimental, since I thought it quite the opposite, almost pornographic in its sentimentality at points.

    3. To attempt to reconcile the differing views about the quality of the writing, I think those who suggest that it is well written in terms of specific, crafted images are correct, yet Rose is also correct to suggest that it is somehow featureless. The premise is original, yet the voice in which it is told felt familiar, a sort of default careful American “literary” prose style.

    4. I find it very depressing that a writer can present a character as having no comprehension of what the progression of leukemia means, biologically — such that the “good news/bad news” announcements are received as, essentially, proclamations of a foreign kind of magic — with the expectation that the audience will feel recognition of that incomprehension. It should surely fall under rudimentary scientific education that everyone should receive. It probably doesn’t, but it should.

    5. There’s something interesting to me in the fact that Titania and Oberon are clearly stand-ins for a very specific class of people: the massively over-privileged, whose lives are and are expected to be largely frictionless. This contributes to all the unpleasant neuroses Rose lists, and ties in with the concern that Nick raises. But actually, I admire the fact that Adrian set himself the challenge of making us feel sympathy for — recognise the humanity of — horrifically self-centered people who have to that point been completely insulated from the hardships of the world. Even if he doesn’t succeed.

    6. I can’t shake the feeling that the ways in which the story is interesting have relatively little to do with the fantastic content.

  13. SF Strangelove Says:

    Niall:

    2. I think the better word isn’t “sanitized” – it’s “clinical.” The author’s viewpoint is clearly that of a doctor. I knew it before I looked up his bio. And, yes, doctors use their clinical approach to distance themselves from the emotional turmoil of dying patients and their families.

    5. This was the most interested aspect for me, too. The grossly inadequate parenting that Rose criticizes as repugnant is in my view a rather clear-eyed depiction of a too-common reality. The portrayal of that parenting and the couple’s dysfunctional relationship, both in their faerie manifestation, and in their ordinary self-centered yuppie manifestation, for me is a large part of what the story is about. There is nothing like confronting death to bring home all of your shortcomings as a parent (and as a wife or husband, too). There are no years of parenting stretching ahead in which to make things right. The “tiny feast” is central to the story because it offers a brief moment of grace, when the couple works together and their pathetic efforts at parenting actually work.

  14. Rose Fox Says:

    @SF Strangelove:

    The grossly inadequate parenting that Rose criticizes as repugnant is in my view a rather clear-eyed depiction of a too-common reality.

    I don’t at all disagree that it’s a too-common reality. That’s part of why I find it repugnant, and why I’m really resistant to seeing it described so thoroughly and yet so uncritically. This story is awash in guilt without a hint of responsibility or even true remorse.

  15. Matt Hilliard Says:

    I have to disagree with Rose Fox about the hair brushing (and Titania’s relationship with Boy in general). Brushing a child’s hair is an ordinary human activity, not “weakness and dependency”. In the story, it represents a reversal of priorities. Instead of finding something the child can do for her, she’s finding something she can do for the child. It’s not clear why a child would cause faeries to re-examine their priorities, but surely this happens all the time with new human parents.

    Which leads into Niall’s last point about genre: I’m willing to flat out call it a mainstream story about what it’s like to be a parent. The fantastic here serves first and foremost as a narrative device: to initially give us a comfortable distance from the unlikeable characteristics of the protagonists, a distance that we reconsider by the end of the story (well, I did anyway). The secondary role is providing the comic relief necessary to make a story about a child dying of cancer bearable.

    If I were critiquing this story as a fantasy story, I’d have a lot of suggestions: provide a reason why this changeling is different from the others, explain the tie between Titania’s magic and indifference earlier in the story so it doesn’t come out of nowhere at the end, show what effects the humanization of Oberon and Titania have on their realm as a whole, etc. etc.

    But this isn’t a fantasy story and making those changes wouldn’t really help the story much. In fact they’d probably make it worse.

    At the risk of being too cute, I’d even say the fantastic elements are a glamour cast over the core of the story. The reader accurately perceives the essence, but the superficial features are altered to make it more acceptable to us.

  16. SF Strangelove Says:

    Rose:

    Rather than “uncritical” I would say “nonjudgmental.” I think that the author is carefully not simplifying the parents’ behavior into categories of good or evil. He presents his observations and lets the reader decide.

    “This story is awash in guilt without a hint of responsibility or even true remorse.”

    Exactly, and that is why turning the self-absorbed yuppie couple into the king and queen of faerie is such a powerful conceit. They were briefly humbled, and made almost human, experiencing guilt and remorse. Tomorrow, when they wake, not a trace of guilt or remorse will remain. They live only in the moment. They will scarcely remember the boy at all.

  17. Abigail Says:

    Though I did catch that aspect of the story, I didn’t react as strongly to Oberon and Titania as metaphors for wealthy and privileged people as some people here, which is partly why I don’t resonate with most of Rose’s criticisms against the story. I see some heavy and, I suspect, entirely deliberate references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – specifically, the subplot about Oberon and Titania fighting over a changeling child – that to my mind set the story firmly in the realm of fantasy pastiche. It seems unfair to complain that Oberon and Titania are unfit parents because that’s precisely the kind of characters they’ve been in Shakespeare and a million renditions before and after him – inhuman and unaccustomed to emotion. That fairies steal human children and make them into playthings and servants is a major component of fairy folklore, one that Adrian is riffing off and playing with, and I’m not sure it makes sense to judge the story without taking account of that mythology.

  18. Rose Fox Says:

    @Abigail: Saying that the original has all the same flaws as the retelling is orthogonal to my complaints, because I’m objecting–on the grounds of personal taste rather than any sort of real thought-out criticism, I hasten to add–to the author’s decision to select source material that has those flaws and to carry them forward into the retelling. You might as well say that the Persephone myth has always had rape in it. I still don’t want to read yet another story about rape and forced marriage, canonical or not, and I still don’t want to read another story about incompetent horrible parents and their guilt, canonical or not.

  19. Paul Kincaid Says:

    It is death that makes people human. Oberon and Titania have never had to deal with death before: they don’t die and they discard their changelings before it gets anywhere close to that state. But Boy gets through their defences, as Titania starts to brush the child’s hair instead of expecting it to brush her hair, as Oberon starts to berate the child and ends up playing with it, they even moderate their perennial quarrels in the presence of the child. Even so, there is a barrier between them and the human child, until the child starts to die and they can do nothing about it. Their grand parade at the end is how they try to deal with death (just as we construct ceremonies around death), but at the end they do not know what to do. It is that not knowing what to do, Niall, that convinces me that what makes this story work is precisely what makes it fantastic.

    And Adrian is precisely one of the two doctors in the story, every day he presents the good news as good but finds new ways of disguising the bad news. I can imagine that’s how the story came to him, wondering how he would cope with parents who didn’t understand the language of euphemism the way we do.

    As everyone has said, the tiny feast is a superb moment, but I found the story full of tiny feasts, oblique throw-away remarks that sad so much more.

  20. Niall Says:

    Paul:

    It is that not knowing what to do, Niall, that convinces me that what makes this story work is precisely what makes it fantastic.

    Except that not knowing what to do is an incredibly common response to grief. That ending reminds me of Anya’s “no one will explain to me why” speech in “The Body” (actually, the whole episode), as a moment when the fantastic collapses, is unable to find a new or different expression for a purely human moment. Except in “The Body” the collapse is more total and more effective because we have what Matt H points out we do not have in this story — a full fantastical context for the events described.

    Strangelove:

    I think the better word isn’t “sanitized” – it’s “clinical.”

    “Clinical” would be the word if I was being charitable to the story, perhaps. But for that to work there has to be a disjunct between what is being described and what is actually the case: as you get in a hospital drama like ER, for instance. I didn’t feel that here. There’s nothing to collapse the distinction between the language and the reality in the way that the distinction between the fantastic and the real collapses.

    Rose:

    I still don’t want to read another story about incompetent horrible parents and their guilt, canonical or not.

    This is a reasonable position, and it is what the story is, at least in one sense; I just want to try to explain why I can still respect it.

    I at least find it disturbingly easy to slide from disapproval of a person’s actions to disapproval of, and in a sense even disbelief of, that person’s basic humanity. I take it as axiomatic that one of the values of fiction is to act as a corrective to this tendency: that is, to provoke empathy. This story’s Titania and Oberon are precisely the sort of people that I would find it easy — too easy — to have little patience for, because I dislike them. So I find the story a welcome reminder that though they are flawed, though they may, as Strangelove suggests, forget on the morrow, in the moment their pain and sorrow are as real, and as worthy of being recognized, as those of any other human. I don’t see that this as an endorsement of their flaws, so the story doesn’t strike me as “uncritical” in the sense you suggest. Nor, to pick up on an earlier remark, can I see Titania and Oberon as individuals who “fail awfully”; to say they “fail” to deal with grief is to suggest there is a way to “succeed” in dealing with grief, which I’m not sure is true.

  21. Martin Says:

    I can see the fantastic reading (Abigail) and I can see the non-fantastic reading (Matt) but Adrian seems to want both readings to be valid simultaneously which is what I’m having trouble with.

    Paul: It is death that makes people human.

    But, as you say, Titania starts the process of caring for Boy in a way that is different to her other changelings long before death rears its head. It just so happens that the only child she cares for is destined to die. This is a manipulative fudge.

  22. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    People seem to be more polarised about this story than last week’s, and not just on the fantasy/science fiction dichotomy. Which is interesting, but I’m not sure at present what if anything might be usefully extracted from that, other than maybe poking at the border where hospital science and ‘faery’ collide. I’d need to think about that some more.

    As I said in my Live Journal post, I did like this story. It was beautifully written (though as various people noted, perhaps a little too perfectly written in places, and I did pull up short a couple of times when it became momentarily a little too exquisite).

    A number of things specifically interested me about it, not least whether we should think of Oberon and Titania as metaphors or as characters. Sitting on the fence of Todorovian hesitation, I would say ‘why not both?’, in part because I enjoy the ambiguity they represent. Niall commented that Titania and Oberon are ‘clearly stand-ins for a very specific class of people: the massively over-privileged, whose lives are and are expected to be largely frictionless’, and I commented similarly in my own posting. What I said there and will say again here is that it seemed to me that one of the themes of this story is excess, and conversely the failure of excess. One of the forms of excess is an excess of commodity, evident in the extravagant gestures of the fairies all through, from the gift of a stolen human child to the cheese-sandwich scene; it’s a excess that is meaningless to Titania and Oberon because it is effortless. In human terms, it would be a ‘money is no object’ kind of excess. Throwing commodities at a problem does not solve it, so it’s also an ineffectual excess (though it is an excess that is in some way meaningful to Titania in that she remembers the gifts, if not the incidents that generate the gifts). There is also a physical excess, in the way that Titania and Oberon behave towards one another and are so appallingly behaved (again, when you’re massively over-privileged you can behave as you like).

    But there is the fact that the child is ill of a physical excess, with cancer cells multiplying throughout his body. This is countered by the excess of love expressed by the various parents for their sick children (and that includes Titania and Oberon, who are belatedly learning what ‘love’ means in ‘parental’ terms, so what might seem niggardly to us is probably already more than they’ve experienced before). This whole story seems to be swimming in ineffectual excess. Excess solves nothing, and the story hinges on the small gesture. Of course, in Oberon’s and Titania’s terms, it’s an excessively small gesture, but it is the one moment when they actually figure out the appropriate scale of response.

    The other appropriate moment of excess is the funeral procession when they do what I rather suspect the human parents won’t be able to do, and that is to break free of social constraints with the gloriously excessive funeral procession. In some ways it’s the kind of thing that might make one cringe, but somehow, it’s ok too.

    I’m curious too about people’s responses to Oberon and Titania and their behaviour. They seem to be criticised variously for being too human and insufficicently fairy, and for not being human enough and too fairy-like. I’m not entirely sure how one squares that particular circle. I had fewer problems with the portrayal of them than I think some people did. Yes, the portrayal is sexist, and yes, the Shakespearean portrayal on which this obviously draws is sexist too, but I think it’s also too easy to use that to dismiss them as rounded characters. For that matter, we might want to suggest that as it is a portrayal of a relationship based in domestic violence and abuse Adrian should have also looked elsewhere.

    As I see it, this is a relationship that is so long-established it has worn away any human-derived notions of love based on romance or companionship. Which is not to condone their behaviour, but I’ve seen relationships that thrive only because the people involved bicker constantly, and this is bickering on a literally titanic scale. Everything about Oberon and Titania is larger than life, or in terms of their survival, beyond life. At the same time, there is something about the pair of them that has remained eternally child-like. As an aside, I’ve always found it striking that the English National Opera’s production of The Fairy Queen, which I have seen three or four times over the years, has consistently dressed Oberon as a Michael Jackson-figure (the military-style jackets, the wet-look hair, and in one performance he was quite definitely moon-walking), which I read as suggesting that Oberon is a man-child. I find that sense here, in Adrian’s presentation. He’s a stern parent figure, not because he actually is a stern parent, but because that is how he thinks a parent should be. He’s outwardly performing parenthood, perhaps a reflection of what he feels inwardly, though this isn’t immediately avaiable, while Titania is performing outward indifference to hide inner turmoil.

    I’ve also been trying to figure out why Adrian would use Titania and Oberon as characters in San Francisco. The obvious question is how do they come to be there. I couldn’t help thinking back to Kipling and Puck of Pook’s Hill, the Dymchurch Flit and a couple of other stories that look towards America. There is a distinctly colonial undertone to the whole thing; what have they displaced, one might wonder. And of course, what is cancer but colonising on a fairly brutal scale. Without going all Manifest Destiny and democratising about it, there is nonetheless a sense of Titania and Oberon dwindling and going into the west in that they are confronting something new and alien in terms of love for a child where normally they would discard an ailing or ageing human, and being somehow reduced and elevated all at the same time.

    And this, I suppose, is part of why I like this story. It resists and yields readings all at the same time.

    More later, when I’ve had a chance to read through the rest of the comments. God, it’s practically a full-time job keeping up with this.

  23. Abigail Says:

    I’ve also been trying to figure out why Adrian would use Titania and Oberon as characters in San Francisco.

    The answer to that might simply be that, if Wikipedia has its facts straight, Adrian did his residency in San Francisco and is currently working there as a pediatric oncologist.

  24. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    I should perhaps expand that ‘San Francisco’ to read ‘USA’, but I’m still curious about the transplantation of ‘faery’ and how they come to be on the continent.

  25. Eric Says:

    I keep mulling over this one in light of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The two execute very similar maneuvers (children in awful situations, fantasy juxtaposed against brutal reality), but this juxtaposition worked for me in ways that the film’s didn’t. If only because the collapse of the fantastic that Niall mentions resonates with me more than PL’s relative triumphalism.

    The abject helplessness of entities not accustomed to helplessness — that worked, that hurt. Which isn’t to say that Titania and Oberon are likable, but I don’t know that they need to be. They are, hyperliterally, folks who have been able to control their lives and their world until now. (To say that they’re really California yuppies is to overspecify, I think.) I read the story as very specifically and deliberately a map of the threshold — it hurts because the geography in question is hurtful and persuasively evoked, not because a particular lovable character is in pain.

  26. rreugen Says:

    Eric, I think there is a huge difference in the way fantasy is juxtaposed against reality in Pan’s Labyrinth.

    In the film, the fantasy is a need of the child protagonist, the translation of reality that she makes in order to survive. That feels organic, the need for fantasy comes from inside the story.

    In this tale, the fantasy is imposed by the author : the parents who lose the child are actually fairies. This is a need of the author, not of the story, using this metaphor to make his idea work.

    It could have been elves instead of fairies … the story would lose absolutely nothing (except for the Shakespeare reference). In my opinion, the fantastical content of the story is irrelevant. Further more, if in Pan’s Labyrinth the fantasy world was fascinating, here it is tame, and we read it in many other stories before.

  27. Eric Says:

    This is a need of the author, not of the story

    I don’t quite buy that distinction.

    T & O literalize the fantasy of control and transcendence that is more or less the subject of the story. That feels at least as organic to me as Ofelia’s fantasy of elsewhere.

    I’m not trying to dump on PL. But I do find T & O’s perspective on the fantasy/awfulness clash more interesting, perhaps because it’s more challenging.

  28. Ziv W Says:

    (Hi, I’m Ziv. Here via AtWQ.)

    I think what bothered me most about this story was that in my eyes, it failed to convincingly portray what is seemingly its central tension: between the power and apathy of faerie, and the uncertainty and gloominess of the cancer ward. The cancer ward sounds spot on – but the Faerie side of it is portrayed as so full of recognizable human emotion, pettiness, and sensibilities, that there’s no real dissonance. So they think the hospital’s ugly, so they’re not used to the medical jargon – but they’re so aware of the situation, and their perceptions are so human and commonplace, that all the cutesy little fairies in the background do nothing to make Oberon and Titania seem anything like the callous, inhuman fairies they’re meant to be – certainly nothing that feels related to the portrayal of fairies in Shakespeare or “Strange and Norrell”. So, read as a fantasy story about fairies coming to terms with death, i don’t feel “A Tiny Feast” is much of a success.

    If, on the other hand, we read it as describing the more mundane experience of a real-life family forced to confront disease and death, suddenly made aware of their own pain and helplessness, only masked in the more colorful trappings and allusions of the Fae… well, it’s competent enough. But it doesn’t really do anything that I didn’t just summarize in a sentence.

    In other words, this story did very little it couldn’t have done in much, much less space. I think a brief sequence of snapshots-in-prose would have described the setup just as well – and since there’s little to the story beyond the setup, the story would have been stronger for it. It would have painted the vivid concept of the immortal, powerful fairies in the cancer ward, and gotten out – we’d be debating which way to read it just as we are now, but the image and emotion would not have been stretched out into a full-length story, and we wouldn’t be trying to read in character or story arc where it doesn’t look like the story has much to offer.

  29. rreugen Says:

    “T & O literalize the fantasy of control and transcendence that is more or less the subject of the story. That feels at least as organic to me as Ofelia’s fantasy of elsewhere.”

    I don’t disagree with this (unfortunately, due to my difficult relation with the English language, I also probably don’t understand it very well). But for me, Titania and Oberon never became as real, as urgently alive as Ofelia. They stayed metaphors, and that’s why nothing felt organic to me about them.

    I don’t want to put PL on a pedestal either. It’s easier for me to relate to its content, though. I’m missing something with this story, so maybe I shouldn’t opine about it. I live in Eastern Europe. This story offers a new perspective on a certain aspect of the american society, but I lack the initial perspective, I know nothing about the social class looked upon, so the simile doesn’t really work for me.

  30. James Says:

    I was not happy with the initial vagueness of the story and then the subsequent lack of subtlety and method of details being revealed. There was not the right level of either for me to make the story click, but I must admit, my wife is an occasional New Yorker reader, and I felt I should stick with it, as I have come to enjoy the magazine a lot.

    My faith was rewarded quite soon, as this was a very enjoyable if somewhat sad story.

    I wonder if the removal from reality that is portrayed in the parents due to their fantastical nature is similar to how some people actually feel in such circumstances. I have experienced a strange surrealistic feeling about death in close quarters. Somehow the other worldliness captured that really well.

    I also felt the good news but no bad news summed up a lot of what I have seen with Cancer. There has to be always hope and positivity yet I thought the sense of magic that pervaded the story also has a connection with cancer. Sometimes it is magic that a cure of sorts works, so much with cancer seems to be luck or chance, that it occasionally does feel like Hocus Pocus.

    I did think I was experiencing a science fictional moment the first time I saw that Day Glow Piss colour liquid connected to a person, who I cared for, it is unnatural and I thought this was caught well in the writing where the humans attempts at cure are even described as poison.
    ‘They poisoned the boy exquisitely’ is a great turn of phrase.

    ‘Sceptre and Crown must tumble down and in the dust be equal made ‘– and I felt that here royalty would feel on this occasion that death had levelled them, despite their all powerfulness and immortality and separation from lowly humans, I think that is important to this story, that no matter how strong or removed or ennobled there is no escaping the attachment to a child or death.

    ‘told her husband that she was afraid that when the boy died he would take with him not just all the love she felt for him but all the love she felt for Oberon, too, and all the love she had felt for anything or anyone in the world.’ This was a very sad line indeed. I liked it and much if teh writing I personally felt was good.

    The reaction to take the body home is significant, this happens a lot at home, bodies are occasionaly removed for the overnight wake, and then the uncomfortable silence as no one knows what to do – so like the real world where that is exactly how it can be, as no one knows what to say.

    Overall, there were a few jarring moments, the lack of glamour and reactions and visions, didn’t sit well, the start was not pitched right for me, but it grew on me, and generally I thought it is a very good story and liked this use of Faerie world to portray a lot of aspects that are essentially human in a tragic situation like this.

  31. Nic Says:

    Count me in the appreciative camp. Beautifully written, of course (I, too, liked “They poisoned the boy exquisitely”), and I really liked the use of all-powerful Oberon and Titania to explore the utter helplessness of parents in this situation, and in particular the way shared grief drives people apart. Everyone’s grief is an island, even when it’s in response to the same shattering event, and the self-sufficient, prickly, arrogant distance of the two characters really brings that home.

    But I was most taken with the story’s tone. Niall calls it ‘sanitised’ and Abigail says it lacks kick, but I read it as numb. It is a narrative voice that has yet to recognise the depths of its own loss, and is terrified of doing so; a voice that’s reluctant to listen, reluctant to understand, reluctant to engage with the circumstances, because to do any of these things is to let fear take hold. Which seems wholly appropriate to the situation. So I find Niall’s comment that

    I find it very depressing that a writer can present a character as having no comprehension of what the progression of leukemia means, biologically

    to be beside the point. The story, it seems to me, is not about understanding such things biologically, but understanding them emotionally. Titania, like nearly any parent or relative in that situation, is out of her depth, and frankly lacks the energy/will to go swot up on medicine. I don’t find it at all difficult to believe that a great many people, faced with a critically-ill relative for whom they can do absolutely nothing, spend much of their time in denial and/or looking to the experts with absolute trust or even superstition.

  32. Short Story Club « Torque Control Says:

    […] Short Story Club: “A Tiny Feast” […]

  33. 2009 Nebula Nominees: Novelettes « Yet There Are Statues Says:

    […] to the stories nominated. I read Chris Adrian’s A Tiny Feast when it was featured in the Torque Control short story club and liked it more than any of the nominated stories. But my favorite story from 2009, so far, is […]

  34. Ged Dawson Says:

    A tiny feast is a story about a young boy that is in hospital being treated for leukemia. It consist of fairies trying to deal with the alien world of mortal medicine and finding a cure to help keep the young boy alive. In a tiny feast you are open to many feelings and emotions as the story uses descriptive passages really well. The emotions that this story makes you feel are sadness because there is a boy who is slowly dying of cancer, sympathy because you feel sorry for the boy and his family because they are going through what is one of the most terrible feeling of life ‘death’ and last of all humour even though there is nothing funny about cancer somehow Chris Adrian is able to have the story on the border line of humorous and depression. The genre of the story is fantasy as the story consist of fairies and other mystical creatures. The pace of the story is slow and descriptive making you think of every passage with deep thought with mixed emotions. The thing I like about this story is the way Chris Adrian contrast fairy land with modern society and how life would be so good if there was a cure for everything. He describes life as a “mystery of death” which couldn’t be truer because everyone dies but no one knows when exactly. The tiny feast is a great story but could be better if he used more of a variety of language techniques but he does a good job of using imagery and juxtaposition. To conclude the ‘A Tiny Feast’ is a very aspiring short story that opens your eyes up to a whole new world of emotions. If you get the chance to read this sorrowful story by Chris Adrian I suggest you do.


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