The Critics’ Corner
“The Man Who Had Lived There”
The reaction to David J. Rank’s “The Man Who Had Lived Here” raises some interesting questions. First, some encomiums from the Review Board’s discussion:
A downright Twilight-Zoner. This story kept me on tenterhooks from the first line to the last. The writer successfully tells about a rational journalist, who in an investigating mood obviously walks into something very unexpected. It’s eerie and fascinating. Extra points for the description of the landlady.
Pretty well-spun haunted-house yarn. I liked the lyrical ending: “Clery lost his way in the dark, above all others, above the river.”
And then some reflections:
Clery’s dissatisfaction with his job is mentioned repeatedly. How does that play in with the rest of the story?
More answers would make a better story.
I am not sure about that. When I read this story I had the strong feeling that if the writer had explained what was going on in that attic, the story would have been a disappointment — unless the writer came up with a very, very new explanation.
I agree about the attic: the more mysterious the better. But Clery is sort of an effect without much of a cause. Also, a few more clues about the previous resident might add a little something of interest. Lots of people “keep to themselves” without vanishing.
And what about the landlady? Does she know what’s going on? Is she collecting souls in her attic? A full-blown exposition would ruin the effect, but a few more hints could add more intrigue.
Your Managing Editor’s summary:
Clery’s job dissatisfaction is a key element of his characterization. He hadn’t fit in at his old job on the east coast, nor does he fit in very well at his new job in the Midwest. I can’t agree that Clery is a “rational journalist”; by all accounts he’s had very indifferent success in his career to date. If he were truly undertaking an investigation, I would expect him to go about it much more thoroughly and systematically than he does.
However, the story has a lot to recommend it. Creaks in the attic; a landlady, neighbors, and co-workers who seem just a little off; an obsessive curiosity about what’s behind the misshapen door. I agree that the story of the previous tenant and of the landlady offer a tempting opportunity for further mystery.
The ending is indeed poetic:
Instead, he filled his lungs with darkness and turned to face those waiting for him, eager to know the truth about The Man Who Had Lived Here, the truth about the universe he would find in the attic.
Clery lost his way in the dark, above all others, above the river.
The ending is no anticlimax; it’s very striking and quite fitting: Clery apparently considers himself above it all. The phrases “lost his way in the dark” and “above all others” sum up a tragic flaw and amount to effective prose poetry.
Venturing into the attic completes Clery’s retreat from the world. And it raises a classic question of cause and effect. Why is he an unsocial recluse who finds physical contact uncomfortable and repeatedly resists others’ calling him “Doug,” the familiar form of his first name? Does he have a mild case of paranoia? Is he depressed? We see the consequences of his state of mind, but his condition itself is axiomatic, i.e. unexplained.
To take a kind of counter-example: in Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, Meursault offers in passing a vague rationale for his behavior: disappointed ambition. It doesn’t really explain anything, but at least it’s an attempt. And Meursault is not unsocial; he’s interested in everybody around him. Rather, he’s like a “foreigner” who doesn’t speak the language of the country he’s visiting. He has no more clue than a man from Mars about how others feel or why they do what they do. He does “learn the language” at the end, but too late.
Clery is very different: he’s quite unattuned to others; his story is one of increasing disengagement and isolation. Unless we know what his tragic flaw stems from, we can’t envision a way he might overcome it. To apply the standard measure of tragic flaws, we know exactly what Oedipus’ tragic flaw is and what he ought to do. And it’s screamingly obvious to everyone but Oedipus himself.
In the end, Clery is waiting for Godot.
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