Essayist offers up samples of dark fiction

By Connie Hsiung

The University of Chicago Committee on Creative Writing hosted a fiction reading by American short story writer and essayist Charles D’Ambrosio Tuesday evening. About 40 fans filled a room in Rosenwald Hall, some leaning against radiators or sitting on the floor due to a lack of chairs.

D’Ambrosio read excerpts from several of his works, none of which he mentioned by name, but his audience neither asked for nor seemed to require any introduction. A rising author of American modernism who is relatively new to fame as a writer, D’Ambrosio has had work published in The New Yorker, and his literary accomplishments include the O. Henry Prize and a Whiting Award. D’Ambrosio’s unassuming and slightly nervous manner, however, conveyed a sense of unfamiliarity with fame.

“That’s how messed up I was,” he said, speaking of a time when he wanted to start writing fiction again but lacked the inspiration. “I was a writer who couldn’t get a job, and I had the editor of The New Yorker calling me and I wouldn’t pick up the phone.”

He spoke little except to interject a few sentences about the origin of each of the excerpts, but when he did, used words such as “desquamating,” “pixelated,” and “preambular” with an almost child-like delight, citing Shakespeare’s King Lear and W.H. Auden to coax laughs out of his audience.

D’Ambrosio’s writing deals with the damaged individuals of society—the terminally ill, the suicidal, the depressed—treating them with a dark humor. He read aloud this excerpt from one of his short stories:

“‘Calm down.’ I lit the cigarette and passed it to her. ‘Your legs are fine.’

“She smiled. ‘Well, thank you,’ she said. Then she puckered her lips, made a loud wet smack, sucked down a single deep drag, exhaled, and drove the cigarette into her thigh. She twisted and snubbed and jammed the coal against her skin, staring at the burn, red and flecked with ash, until the last live cinder died out.

“‘You ought to quit smoking,’ I said.”

The audience in Rosenwald, which had been mostly quiet throughout his reading, gave him hearty applause when he finished.