The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"Two Weeks in August" by Frank Robinson: An Appreciation by Colleen Mondor

The first thing that struck me when I was reading Frank Robinson's "Two Weeks in August" was how timeless the story appeared to be. It is about one of the most common of 20th (or 21st) century pastimes--complaining about the people you work with at a job that is slowly sucking your soul away. The story's narrator is that all-round ordinary guy, someone who enjoys his moments at the office when he has something to tell--when he gets to share a personal triumph about home and family that makes him the momentary center of attention. The bane of his existence is a guy named McCleary, the classic obnoxious coworker who always has to prove he's better--his kids are smarter, his car is newer, his house is more glorious. Basically, if you walk in to work on Monday having spent the weekend finding a cure for cancer, McCleary will have brought about world peace in the same period.

We all know a guy like McCleary.

The big moment for our narrator, for all the guys at the office, is those two annual weeks of vacation they receive every year. Of course vacation destinations are another opportunity for McCleary to play his game of one-up-manship and the narrator is sick to death of the endless cycle. The situation is all the more frustrating for him this particular year becasue financial concerns mean that he will be spending his two weeks in the backyard. It's not a bad way to see part of the summer but he knows McCleary will be endlessly annoying about his own grand plans and this time our guy just can't take it. So he comes up with a plan to cut his competition off before he has the chance to brag--he decides to announce a vacation destination that is so outlandish, so amazing, so literally out of this world, that McCleary won't be able to compete. He's finally going to shut the other man up and enjoy just a little bit of peace and quiet.

He's finally going to win because frankly, there is just no way to beat him.

But then the story takes a turn, a sweetheart of a turn, and the narrator (and all the other guys) are dumbfounded by McCleary's achievement. They all smartly decide to make the most of it though, and peace finally comes to the office. The fact that McCleary is responsible really doesn't matter because everyone wins so big (really big). And besides, without McClearly none of it ever would have happened anyway so why complain. By the end of the story, the narrator is affectionately referring to his old rival as "Mac" and has come to appreciate him on a whole new level. Every office has a guy just like him, after all, and whether or not you use his competitive nature to everyone's advantage though is up to you, and how badly you want to enjoy those two weeks in August.

But that's not the end of my appreciation. I liked "Two Weeks in August" because it was so easy for me to identify with the characters. I knew the narrator (I have been the narrator) and I certainly have endured the presence of my share of McClearys. But when I saw the copyright at the end--when I saw that Frank Robinson wrote this story in 1951, I was totally blown away. I had no idea this was a fifty year old story, no idea at all. Robinson brought such an impressive air of timelessness to the tiny world he created, such a perfectly adaptable atmosphere that transends all generational or regional assignment, that it has easily stayed with me over the past couple of weeks. So much of our world has changed since 1951 that it is hard to believe how little of the narrator's world is different. But there are still the same offices, the same cubicle games, the same longing for vacation. Some things just might never change.

In crafting his story so effectively around the unchanging aspects of jobs and work Robinson shows one of the best things about science fiction--that it can be a timeless art, a forever art, that will appeal with ease to any reader of any age. He makes it all look easy with "Two Weeks in August," but don't be fooled by that. Give the story five minutes of your time and you will be mightily impressed by Robinson's talent for understatement. I know that I was, and I still can't get this story out of my head.

Link to story.


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