Year of a Hundred books – #56 I, Etcetera

I, EtceteraI, Etcetera – Susan Sontag

3/5

In hindsight, I think it was a mistake to read I, Etcetera. Not because it was particularly bad (although it was hard to read in places), but because though I wanted to read something by Susan Sontag, her fiction isn’t exactly what she’s known for. I should have just gone for one of her books of essays, or her monographs, or hell, one of the fiction works that were actually celebrated, rather than an obscure collection of short stories. Let that be a lesson to me on just getting the first thing I can find from the Library catalogue.

As with all the other short story anthologies I’ve read this year, the stories are variable in their quality. The first story, Project for a Trip to China, is perhaps not the best with which to open the collection, because, well, it’s a little experimental. The premise is that the narrator has a long-held affinity for China, and based on the title is planning a visit there. Beyond that however, there’s not much in the way of, well, anything. It’s just page after page of meandering, almost bullet pointed, ideas. As far as I can tell, this is the format some of Sontag’s essays took, but in terms of fiction, I don’t think it works.

I think, unfortunately, that this awkward opening kind of set the tone for the rest of my reading experience. There were some good stories, perhaps the best being The Dummy, in which the narrator creates an identical, sentient, facsimile of himself which he then sets off to live the entirety of his life for him. Problems emerge once the dummy finds love and wants out of his pre-ordained existence. It’s perhaps in this story that I get a sense of why Sontag is so respected, or at least well-known, for her non-fiction works, because the philosophical and ethical questions that it raises really make it one of the best works of short fiction I’ve read. There’s also a couple of other works that stand out, such as her retelling of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which envisages an intellectual Dr Jekyll seeking to remodel himself around Mr Hyde, an acquaintance, all the while struggling under the influence of his superior at work. 

A few years ago, Slate published an interesting article on Sontag’s short stories, which said that really she should be remembered as much for them as she is for her non-fiction works. Not having read any of these, it’s difficult for me to say either way, but in terms of easy readability, and indeed what I took away from I, Etcetera, I’d be hesitant to agree. As I say, the undertones in some of the stories have made me curious enough to want to read some of her other works, but I’d probably steer away from her fiction unless someone advised me otherwise.

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