Posted by: dougery | November 17, 2011

The Man and His Crossword

The short story and I have a complicated relationship. In theory they are everything I enjoy about reading and writing. A small window into a place that we only get to share for a brief period of time. In comics, much is made of how the mind fills in the gaps that occur between panels. In a short story all we get is one panel but a well written episode has us reading over the edges in all directions. In architecture school the analogy would be a vignette (because architecture, all dressed in black with its nose up in the air, is going with the French word here as always). A vignette is a drawing, usually a perspective rendering, of a particular moment one experiences occupying a building. A good vignette is quick and scribbly but evocative. Commissions have been won on the strength of vignettes.

Like any good literary Freudian, I generally want to be completely overwhelmed (many of the novels I love most are doorstops) or given just a taste and left wanting more. While a solid short story should leave the reader wanting more, the excellent one should be just as satisfying as your typical opus. There won’t be as many characters, and there will be fewer themes but these need not be weaknesses. Few people are going to chose a solid dinner party over an excellent date. Even if that date ends up being a one-night stand as it will in this overwrought analogy.

Perhaps my problem with short stories lay in how they are bundled. You are rarely presented with just one and if you read them as you would a novel, uninterrupted over a period of a few days or weeks, there are going to be some rough patches. Not every story is going to sing. Imagine a television series where every episode features a different set of characters. Because like it or not an author’s voice is going to be fairly consistent. And a well bundled collection is going to be messing with the same themes over and again. But the characters will be different and this can be difficult to deal with as a lifetime of television viewing can make this revolving door of introductions off-putting. I mean you don’t think people were watching the 8th season of Friends or the Office because they were looking for something new to happen. They are tuning in because after a while the characters become the story. At the sacrifice of any kind of development whatsoever.

Which brings us back to the short story where ideally we’re given a moment of crystallized development. Some kind of pivot or realization or dramatic happening. Maybe even one that reinforces how nothing at all is ever going to change.

Collections of short stories I have enjoyed include Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Steven King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Steven Millhauser’s brilliant Dangerous Laughter, Stuart Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, and Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby. There are some uncommonly strong novels like Winesburg, OH or Invisible Cities that function like short story collections. I can’t recall the specific volumes of Poe, Hawthorne, Lovecraft or Dostoevsky I read but they were all sufficiently bleak and depressing which is like heroin to an English major.

Taking a step back, Poe is considered a master of the form, on a short list that often includes folks like Bradbury and Borges. I am nearly entirely ignorant of the former, much to my wife’s increasing distress, and Borges work always leaves me feeling exhausted. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a genius and those stories are masterpieces but his own particular combination of playfulness and philosophy often drains his stories of actual plot. After a time I get so starved for story that I feel like an athlete performing intense workouts for a sport that doesn’t exist.

Recently I dove into Norton’s leviathan of a short story collection for J G Ballard. There are nearly 100 short stories included, everything the man wrote from the mid-1950’s til his death a few years back. I cannot recommend this book enough. For me Ballard hits the Goldilocks “just right” blend of story, philosophical horror and imagination. I’ve never actually read any of his novels or seen Empire of the Sun, the movie version of a Ballard work that the man is probably best known for but one for which I’m told is less representative of his usual pursuits. Although I have seen Cronenberg’s take on Ballard’s Crash so it’s not like I was walking in blind here.

I’ve read about 10 stories or so and every one of them has been worthwhile. Ballard has a special obsession with sound and space. I would have loved to asked him what he thought of Repulsion. One story features a florist specializing in singing plants. Another deals with poor souls who have elected to forgo sleep for the rest of their lives through surgical procedure. Another is like Groundhog’s Day only instead of a whole day repeating itself a man finds himself reliving 15 minutes over and over… and then that timeframe slowly begins to shrink. Gah!

It is an interesting statement on the claustrophobic nature of a short story, right? We see the man and his crossword, meet his wife and the tv show she’s watching and just as all of this domestic boredom is settling in, ZAP, we meet the man and his crossword on he’s wondering where his filled in clues have gone and why the tv station is replaying the same bit. As this happens a few more times the man tries desperately to reach out to the rest of his world, calls a co-worker, asks him what he’s watching on tv (because its early evening and that’s what everyone is doing) and whether he’s noticed the skipping. Co-worker hasn’t but says he’ll drive over only he will never make it in time because he lives a half hour away.

Deeply unsettling and self aware, right? Maybe that is why I am liking this collection so much.

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Responses

  1. Great post, dougo. I’d never thought of it before, but I think you’re right that the often unsatisfying thing about short story collections is that the authorial voice and themes are often the same, but the perspective shifts so much as to be unsatisfying as a *book* and at this moment in time, we are all very much more *book* people than we necessarily are *story* people. I wonder if the Internetz will change that, but anyway.

    Personally, I think the novella is the greatest form of narrative fiction. Long enough to avoid the too-clever twists or half-baked concepts that plague many short stories, and too short to fall prey to the aimless wandering and stuffing that characterizes many novels (I think that stuffing works well in many novels, like “Moby Dick” or probably DWF, but I find most genre and literary fiction suffers from it. I’m thinking of the endless camping in Harry Potter 7, or the silly Antarctic section of “Kavalier & Clay”). It’s just right, as Goldilocks would say.


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