“Tiny Man”
by Sam Shepard
from the December 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker

december-5-2016It’s been quite a while since Sam Shepard published a story in The New Yorker — November 23, 2009, in fact — and I’m thrilled to see him here again. Though known primarily for his plays (and for his acting career), I’ve generally enjoyed Shepard’s short stories and wondered, since his last collection was published in January 2010, when we might see more.

I haven’t read this one fully yet, but I’m definitely interested after the strange first paragraph:

Early morning: They deliver my father’s corpse in the trunk of a ’49 Mercury coupe, dew still heavy on the taillights. His body is wrapped up tight in see-through plastic, head to toe. Flesh-colored rubber bands bind it at the neck, waist, and ankles — mummy style. He’s become very small in the course of things — maybe eight inches tall. In fact, I’m holding him now, in the palm of my hand. I ask them for permission to unwrap his tiny head, just to make sure he’s truly dead. They allow me to do this. They all stand aside, hands clasped behind their tailored backs, heads bowed in a kind of ashamed mourning, but not something you would question them on. It’s smart to keep on their good side. Besides, they seem quite polite and stoic now.

Please share your thoughts below!

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By |2017-05-25T17:52:52-04:00November 28th, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sam Shepard|Tags: |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Sean H November 29, 2016 at 5:19 am

    Definitely oddness abounding here. The first paragraph is an odd blend of Dennis Lehane and an ironic, more intellectual tone, with its blend of magical realism and satire. For the majority of the story, the narrator’s father is full size, and the unexplained nature of his being shrunk to the size of a penis is made quite literally Freudian by story’s end. This piece serves as a metacommentary on masculinity, with the timid observer child, the virile criminal of a father who barely spoke, the lusty femme Felicity (herself revealed to be much younger than one would think from her original presentation), and other tropes that Shepard seems to be clearly trotting out in postmodern fashion, almost as if riffing on his own rugged masculine reputation and on both the noir genre and the minimalist Carver-esque family drama. Cliche is inverted and played with throughout, and the surreal imagery is quite unsettling. Part of what Shepard is both lamenting and skewering is the concept of “It was better in the good old days” (when the little lone farmer held out vs. the big boys, when boredom was a real event). There’s a deliberate absurdity to his conflation of gangsters and miniature corpses, black waiters in tuxedos driving electric golf carts, the Chinatown-esque themes and raiment, the notion that unmanliness and suffering can somehow be contagious. It’s a quite distinctive and memorable melange. How good it is is my only question at this point. I look forward to reading this one a few more times.

  2. William December 5, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Trigger alert: In this commentary I talk about psychoanalysis, not just Freudian but Jungian.

    First, I enjoyed this story as a narrative. To me it was the tale of a young boy who was bewildered by life and his world because he had no one to show him or teach him. As far as we can tell, he perhaps didn’t even go to school because of his father’s peripatetic and neglectful lifestyle. His father worked menial jobs, such as in a feedlot, and they lived in rundown places. The boy appears to be solitary, perhaps because of circumstance, perhaps also because of his unfamiliarity with people. I thought the voice of the curious but puzzled and untutored boy was well portrayed.

    “Maybe I was making it up. A solid life of uncertainty.”

    “the world remained enigmatic, shrouded and unspeakable.”

    When the boy thinks about his father throwing him out, he thinks: “Where would I go? Bakersfield?”

    Within the boy’ world, the most striking feature was communication, more precisely the lack of it. When the boy sees his father having sex with Felicity, he says, “His lips were moving, but nothing came out.” Later he thinks: “He was always moving his lips as though he were talking to someone.” The only two instances where the boy expresses his thoughts at length are solipsistic. One day as he wanders from the house, he has a whole list of questions that he’d like to ask his father, but he doesn’t. When he goes to see his father at the feedlot, he has a whole monologue of what he might say to him. But he doesn’t even approach the worker who he thinks is his father. Unanswered questions, unvoiced thoughts.

    The only person he actually talks to is the teenage girl with whom his father is having an affair. Felicity is just a few years older than the narrator, and when he asks her questions she has scarcely any greater comprehension of the world or herself than the boy does.

    In addition to these realistic sections, the story has several segments about the “tiny man” and the gangsters – or maybe ex-Marines. To me the realistic segments are written in the voice of the narrator as a boy, while the tiny man segments are written in the voice of the boy grown up reflecting back on his father. When we read the first segment it‘s mysterious because we have no context. After a couple of these sections, the narrator says:

    “Why or how he was shrunken in those various dreams and apparitions is beyond me.”

    So we see that they are his mental images.

    Approaching the visions as dreams appears to me to be most profitable. What does the dream content mean? The narrator slyly and ingenuously says:

    “It could also be that I’m dreaming him like that – tiny – because it’s a way of distancing myself, but that’s a bit Freudian, don’t you think? As though there were some kind of intelligence driving all this — the subconscious or some bullshit like that. Why would I want to be distanced anyway? There’s nothing I’m still afraid of. At least not from him.”

    Heavy irony.

    The father figure holds a lot of terror to the adult man because of the power it had in childhood. And that’s what the man is dealing with.

    He also says that “miniaturization only causes you to look closer.” And it certainly does that for us, the readers.

    Who are the gangster figures? Clearly they are “characters” in the boy’s mental movie. He says they wear shoes as in gangster movies and, in another place, he describes them in stereotypical Sicilian gangster – Mafia — terms.

    I think these gangsters are expressions of the boy-man’s repressed emotions from his early life, which remain in his psyche. In Freudian and Jungian theory, a psychic entity called the shadow consists of psychic elements that are denied expression or repressed. Here is one Jungian analyst’s thought about the shadow:

    “The shadow has been identified with primitiveness, violence and cruelty. It is the inferior part of our personality where we are incapable, unadapted, irresponsible, psychopathic, and filled with infantile fantasies. This picture of. the shadow is reinforced by the way the figure appears in our dreams: a figure, the same sex as the dreamer, who is frightening, hostile, weak, malicious, deformed, and seemingly bent on destruction.”

    I think much of this description fits the gangsters. And I think the gangsters express the anger the man-boy still feels toward his father, as well as his fear of the father. The gangsters have killed the father, as the man wishes to do retroactively, and shrunk him down to a manageable size.

    Of course there are many creative aspects to Shepard’s telling of this story, such as the boy visualizing tiny animals coming out of Felicity’s mouth while they are having sex, or the mint ’49 Merc. All of this theorizing doesn’t reduce the story to abstractions, rather it shows the intellectual scaffolding underlying the narrative that makes it have such an immediate impact on us.

    Dennis Lang might say that the subtext is not the story. I agree. But for me understanding the subtext of the story makes my appreciation of it richer.

  3. Dennis Lang December 5, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Hah!!

    William I love your passion for these stories!! I just read this one. It’s still resonating, mostly as a haunting portrait of grim isolation, vulnerabilities and loneliness. Adrift and small wafted about by all that is much larger and beyond understanding. So many incredible images. (Felicity always with her black purse that is never just a black purse but always her “little” black purse.) Makes me want to climb in the story and show everyone the way (as if I knew it!) Thought-provoking and poignant.

    William, As usual, enjoy your take very much!!

  4. David December 5, 2016 at 10:01 pm

    I was hesitant to comment on this story and while the above comments are well-argued defenses of it, I still can’t quite see that it has much to offer. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the dream is presented first and given to us as if it is real. It is only later we find out that it is not. Now I can see the value of presenting it like this not as a “clever boy” author trick, but because by making us first think the dream is real it gives us the strong sense of reality the dream has for the character. But it also has the effect of calling into question the reality of a number of key events of the story. Is it really believable that a boy could walk into the bedroom while his father and girlfriend are having sex, watch them, and they don’t notice? And was his own sexual encounter with the girl real or just imagined? The way it is described sounds too peculiar to be real. But if none of this is real then just what is real here? Anything?

    There is nothing new about stories of a son’s strained relationship with his father or about first sexual experiences (although this seems more of a side issue here), so for the story to have something more than well trodden ground to present it should have something new to offer. I suppose there could be something in all these dreamlike ways he remembers the events of his youth and how he dreams about the death of his father, but I did not see much in them to really break through the familiar. I wanted there to be more there, but while he seems to have left us lots of room to read in something more to the story, I don’t see anything more there on the page.

  5. Dennis Lang December 5, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    Sean H–I’m sorry I missed your very thoughtful comment earlier. It is one of those stories for me that pushes buttons and prompts return visits.

    David raises a good question, and I wonder, does it matter whether we delineate the real from non-real/dream in the telling of this story?

    Maybe it does or should.

    Personally, it doesn’t matter. It is a quite “memorable melange” as Sean has noted. This landscape of desolation (populated by imaginary gangsters and waiters in black) both emotional and physical, the feedlots and dust, the distances among all the characters that can’t be closed. Verbal communication absent. The displaced life along the tracks that go–where? Bakersfield?

  6. Melinda December 7, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    This story reminds me that Shepard is first, in my mind, a playwright. His use of first person, present and simple past tense create a close relationship between protagonist and reader with an immediacy similar to drama. However, this story, unlike Shepard’s earlier NYer publication “Land of the Living,” isn’t laden with dialogue. In both pieces, though, Shepard considers superficial family relationships, a lack of communication, guilt and disloyalty. When these traits permeate family bonds, they tend to spill into their outer social circles, creating dishonesty and a disregard for others and self.

    “Tiny Man” is full of contradictions—gangsters and Bakersfield, California(?!). The more the boy tries to pull away from Felicity, the more he is drawn to her. He attempts to reconcile his guilt, yet he moves so far away from his father that he doubts the reality of his situation, his own acts. As well, Felicity feels as if she’s living someone else’s life. She’s both lover and traitor—the dreamed.

    All of the female characters in this story feel more like caricatures, clichés and the actions of all depicted a distortion. The protagonist does seem to be immersed in a dream state, attempting to deal with his father’s life and the nature of his relationships. He’s shrunk his father down to eight inches, made him a minimal size. But that’s one of the biggest contradictions in the story. The father is huge, at the center of the narrative, the trajectory for all that happens. The biggest contradiction is the protagonist himself. His account is intended to reveal his father’s behavior, maybe even to justify or categorize it, yet it’s the dream playing inside the protagonist’s head. “What’s going to happen? That was the question. What’s going to happen.”

  7. Greg December 8, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you Sean and William for fully elaborating on the author’s key objective with the Freudian analysis. The following are my favourite parts of your posts:

    Sean: “This piece serves as a metacommentary on masculinity, with the timid observer child, the virile criminal of a father who barely spoke, the lusty femme Felicity (herself revealed to be much younger than one would think from her original presentation), and other tropes that Shepard seems to be clearly trotting out in postmodern fashion, almost as if riffing on his own rugged masculine reputation and on both the noir genre and the minimalist Carver-esque family drama.”

    William: ““It could also be that I’m dreaming him like that – tiny – because it’s a way of distancing myself, but that’s a bit Freudian, don’t you think? As though there were some kind of intelligence driving all this — the subconscious or some bullshit like that. Why would I want to be distanced anyway? There’s nothing I’m still afraid of. At least not from him.”

    Heavy irony.

    The father figure holds a lot of terror to the adult man because of the power it had in childhood. And that’s what the man is dealing with.”

  8. William December 11, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Lots of good commentary stimulated by this story.

    Dennis – I like this part of your summary: “a haunting portrait of grim isolation, vulnerabilities and loneliness.”

    Melinda – goo insight her: “The protagonist does seem to be immersed in a dream state, attempting to deal with his father’s life and the nature of his relationships. He’s shrunk his father down to eight inches, made him a minimal size. But that’s one of the biggest contradictions in the story. The father is huge, at the center of the narrative, the trajectory for all that happens.”

    On to Edgar Snowden!

  9. William December 11, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    sorry for the typos — should be “good insight here”.

  10. Mark Richardson (@RchrdsnMark) January 2, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    I have just discovered your webpage and want to let you know I really appreciate it. I just finished “Tiny Man” and your commentary helped me wrap my head around the story, a story I enjoyed very much.

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