Saturday, August 29, 2009

The New Yorker: "Fountain House" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

“There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life.” That’s a fairly stunning opening sentence, it seems to me. And I was drawn into the story of the grieving father who takes extraordinary measures to get treatment for his daughter who has been killed in a terrorist bombing.

At least I was until this: “The father slept, and in his dream he met his daughter . . .” And thereafter, I am forced to doubt everything that happens. Is it all a dream? The father isn’t sure, and neither am I. Does the doctor succeed in reviving her? I don’t know. And, furthermore, even if the dream ends and the narrative returns to reality, I find dreams in fiction to be terribly manipulative, and I mistrust stories that employ them. In this particular dream, the father feeds a sandwich to his daughter, but when he discovers that the sandwich is made of a raw human heart, he eats it himself. And this incident takes place in a “paradisiacal spot”—“In the fields, amid soft green hills, he found an enormous gray house . . . and there . . . he saw a fountain, as tall as the house, with one tight jet of water that cascaded at the top into a glistening crown.” So, the fountain house represents what, exactly? And why should the story depend on this heavy-handed dream?

If in fact the father returns from the dream, it appears that the daughter is getting a transfusion from him. But we’ve been told that there was no doubt—she’s dead. (The doctor knows she’s dead, but needs the money the father has offered.)

And so the girl revives. The father knows it’s because he ate a human heart so that she wouldn’t have to. Here’s the story’s final line: “But then that had happened in a dream, and dreams don’t count.” Exactly so.

August 31, 2009: “The Fountain House” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya


Clifford Garstang said...

Lest there be any doubt, I didn't like this story. I'm happy to hear from you if you have a different opinion, though. (Or the same opinion, for that matter.)

Leslie said...

I stopped reading at that exact line you quoted about the dream.

Paul Epstein said...

Yes, indeed. If I remember rightly, a blogger on your site commented recently about how he didn't like the dream device in short fiction. Can't remember who, though.


vivphy said...

I found an interesting comment from another blog about this short story, and thought you may be interested in the potential allegorical nature of this story:

"The Fountain House is a museum in St. Petersburg that honors poet Anna Akhmatova, a symbol of suppressed Russian heritage during Stalin’s reign. So I'm guessing that the “dead” daughter is Russia’s suppressed culture during Stalin. And the revived daughter is culture's rebirth."