I had the idea of reading at least one short story a day. It sort of working and I have managed three so far this week. The first on Tuesday was Ron Hansen’s ‘Funland’ from ‘Nebraska’ a collection of short stories published in 1989. I purchased it at the time because of the cover which I later found out was a photograph by Wim Wenders. No apparent connection between the two artists just a lucky graphic design intervention I guess although film does connect to this story.
The collection contains a series of historical re-inventions or ‘factions’ that whilst starting from historical certainties and research lift off into unknown territories.Â The collection was published after several more ‘historically’ accurate novels including the ‘Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’ now a movie with Brad Pitt. Hansen went on to write several novels on historical themes. He is now theÂ Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. Professor at Santa Clara University – San Francisco. Teaching fiction and screen-writing.
‘Playland’ is a classic case in point. When first read in 1990 with no internet there was no chance of quickly and easily searching out images (see above) from the ‘real’ Playland or reading anything about its existence. Now I can,and whilst not spoiling the story (which I read first), it does provide an intriguing backdrop and filter on the writer’s intentions. The theme park started life as a dog track run by gangsters after the second world war and this adds a sheen to the tale which revolves around anÂ ‘innocent’ post-war couple. The story is seemingly set post or during WW2 as the cast mention various ‘Talkie’ stars like Peter Lorre and Betty Grable .
The introductory pages however create a ‘paradisical’ indeed a veritable Eden from the DepressionÂ createdÂ some time afterÂ 1918. This rather strange as the story suggests it long established asÂ the story unfolds in a vaguely 1920s to 1950s neverworld, perhaps deliberately. The real Playland was a more humdrum affair built in the 1940s and probably a place Hansen visited as a child.
The exotic and unreal nature of the tale is heightened by the landing of a Â seaplane (just after a pelican!) carryingÂ the ‘evil’ and rich protagonist. It is like something straight out of The Great Gatsby. He is the female ‘lead’s’ cousin (I say lead because the whole story so ‘filmic’) who is a sexual predator andÂ the essential ingredient in the plot’s progression and the final denouement. The atmosphere suggests Hansen playing with the dreams rather than the reality of Nebraskan lives.The imagery and lighting throughout is so dreamlike the whole story could be read as existing on a film set.
The structure is straightforward. The ending slightly open-ended and bristling with perverse sexuality. A very good short story not quite as draw-dropping as the tour-de-force ‘Wickedness’ that opens the collection and was featured in Tobias Wolf’s Picador anthology of Contemporary American Stories in 1993 but still very good.
This short is a Â good read and suggests that ‘reality’ can be manipulated and used as suits even if twenty years later your reader can pick apart the reality from the imagined which affects all ‘faction’. Indeed where do we draw the line on historical authenticity and fiction these days when even historians questioning such notions? Is the image above any more real because sourced from the internet. it looks real but even that could Â have been created by an ingenious graphic designer..maybe that is the entrance to another theme park..or hell.
A review at the time is interesting noting the precision of the writing at its best and its sloppiness at worst…but marks Playland as one of the ‘bests’
What makes the violence in these stories so powerful and disturbing is Mr. Hansen's meticulous control of his prose. The action of his tales is always carefully grounded in a welter of precise description (hens sitting on their nests ''like a dress shop's hats''; ''goldfish with tails like orange scarves''; a man who ''chews gum instead of brushing his teeth''), and the language constantly engages us by moving back and forth between the colloquial and the poetic, between the understated and the brutal.
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI Published: February 7, 1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/07/books/books-of-the-times-stories-that-call-an-evil-by-its-name.html