Short Story Club: “A Tiny Feast”

Seconds out, round two: this week’s short story is “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian. And the commentary round-up begins with Perpetual Folly:

I hate cancer stories. There are too many of them and it is too easy to make them overly sentimental and melodramatic. But this one is different. This one is so highly original (in a Shakespeare-derivative way) that it overcomes all of my objections. I think this is one terrific story.

Patrice Sarath:

loved this story, for the fantasy and the heart and the humor and the humanity and the sorrow. If you love good fantasy, you will pick up a copy of the April 20 New Yorker. You will not be disappointed. For some reason I always get my New Yorker way the hell past the time the rest of the country does (maybe it has trouble clearing customs? Thank you Rick Perry) so it might not be available on newsstands anymore, but do your best.

I hope that this is nominated for a World Fantasy award, as well as an O’Henry and any other literary award out there. I wish that the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror were still being published, because this story would have pride of place. Thankfully there are other Year’s Best fantasies. David Hartwell and Katherine Cramer, are you listening? Please read this story and reprint it. Please.

Jacob Russell:

Chris Adrian’s “A Tiny Feast” is an almost miraculous realization of the mystery of death, of the power of its visitation, of how it astonishes us into recognition of love–how is it possible for anything to be at once, “so awesome and so utterly powerless?”

Oh, and how do we account for the strange ways of medicine and therapeutic care, the magic of which is not love… but indifference?

Paul Debraski:

The supernatural quality of the story takes the edge off of what is, in fact, a story of a child dying of cancer. But since the point of view is that of immortal beings who simply cannot comprehend the details of medicine, cancer or suffering, it takes some of the pain away from the plot and focuses it on the parents’ frustration. The immortals feel grief for the first time and don’t know quite how to deal with it. And when they finally do return home, they feel just as lost as they felt with their new feelings.

I really enjoyed this story, it was quite odd, but very well done. I also appreciated how it showed the suffering that parents go through at a distance, allowing the suffering to seem more real for being so confusing. I can’t imagine what cuased the full inspiration for it.

And three Torque Control readers, first David Hebblethwaite:

I think this piece is wonderful, in more than one sense of that word. Adrian does a superb job of working through the ramifications of his fantastical idea. Most obviously, perhaps, there’s going to be humour in the juxtaposition of traditional faeries and modern society – and so there is: witness, for example, the method Titania finds for playing a Carly Simon LP, before ‘[singing] to the boy about his own vanity’; or the times when the faeries’ glamour drops, and the medical staff become dazzled by the very presence of Titania and Oberon.

Yet there’s another, less playful, side to ‘A Tiny Feast’. Adrian makes some telling observations (‘The doctors called the good news good news, but for the bad news they always found another name’), but the heart of his story concerns the emotional trajectory of the characters, and Titania in particular. At first, the boy is just another changeling to her (she never even gives him a name); gradually, though, she comes to care about him – but the story-logic by which the faeries live has the final say. It makes the tale not only a fine piece of fantasy in its own right, but also a striking metaphor for how we may react to the terminal illness of a loved one.


“A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian is a darkly comic rendering of the cancer ward. Anyone who has logged a bit of time in the foreign world that is a cancer ward[1] will recognize a lot of these moments (the one that hit home the most for me was walks with the iv stand), the strangeness that Titania and Oberon feel and their alien reaction is not far from what any family feels. It is their comic frustration that makes them their most human.
While it encapuslizes the helplessness of a parent with a sick child- that’s exactly the problem – Titania and Oberon have been too normalized at this point. It was the jarring conflict between our world and theirs (and mine and the cancer ward) that made this story work for me.

And a dissenting opinion by Evan at Association List:

I thought that this one was well written, but otherwise failed on most other levels. I have to admit some bias, in that I have essentially no interest in fantasy specifically featuring fairies. It’s a trope at this point that has been so brutally overused that it’s hard to imagine it having any sort of resonance with anyone at this point. I realize that my point of view clearly isn’t shared, so I’ll try to put it aside. The story imagines one of the changelings taken by the fairy court, Oberon and Titania and the whole lot, getting leukemia and going into treatment. In terms of playing the conflict in a humorously deadpan way and depicting the process in an accurate way, the author gets high marks, but as a story it never really gets anywhere, or says anything, or really has any characters. Any one of those could be fine, of course, but at some point the story just falls down, when you decline to provide your readers with any reason to care.

If we’re to read this straight, Oberon and Titania are fairies and so at least somewhat alien and distanced from human concerns. It’s never clear why either of them should care about this particular changeling over any other, other than he’s sick. The author never bothers to make them human characters, nor does he manage to make them convincingly alien. They speak on one hand from a desire for the story to move forward, and on the other from a desire by the author to make the story humorous.

Over the course of the stories, interactions are detailed, scenes are set, jokes are constructed and delivered. The boy sickens, recovers, sickens more, and dies. Nothing else actually happens. No point is delivered, nor is one possible to infer, given the half-assed inhumanity of the characters.

It strikes me that the author had a neat idea for a story, then didn’t realize that his conceit didn’t have legs enough to stand alone at such length. Maybe he had some inkling, hence the jokiness, the places where it’s overwritten. Halfway to Rembrandt Comic Book territory, more or less. Still, in the end, it stacks up to more or less nothing interesting, and the author, while clever and skilled, simply isn’t writing at the level where you’ll stick around to listen to him talking about anything, just because the prose is so good.

And so we reach the end without me having said much interesting or clever, but I feel that the conceit here doesn’t stand up to criticism any better than it stands up to reading; that it is, in fact, a conceit and only provides the critic with his thinnest gruel, stylistic analysis. I am hoping that I’m missing something, and that some of the other commenters will provide a view of the story that illuminates a more interesting angle from which to view the story.

Over to the rest of you: what did you think? Why?