Tag Archives: short stories

Small Worlds

ImageThis summer, looking for something to read and with a few minutes to spare before an appointment, I popped into the Powell’s Books on Lincoln in Chicago to pick something up.  I had no clear idea of what I wanted, so I browsed the fiction shelves for something interesting.  About midway through I came across a clutch of Alice Munro books, and I immediately plucked one off the shelf.  I’ve never read an Alice Munro story I didn’t like, a streak kept intact through my reading of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  When, a few months after I bought the book, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was delighted, particularly because the type of fiction she writes is so infrequently rewarded appropriately: Munro writes only short stories deeply focused on the interior lives of her characters, most of the them women, without literary pyrotechnics or dramatic plotlines.  Yet her stories are some of the most moving and satisfying works of fiction I’ve ever read.

This collection was made famous (or what passes for famous among the cultural elite) by the filmmaker Sarah Polley, who adapted the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the award-winning 2006 film “Away from Her.”  The story is in many ways representative of Munro’s work (although, interestingly, the protagonist and main consciousness in “The Bear” is a man): it has few characters, minimal dialogue, is focused on the interior lives of its characters and in particular on the secrets and mysteries inherent in human relationships.  The story focuses on an aging, childless couple who have moved to a rural area to escape a scandal related to the husband’s affair with a young student of his at the university where he once taught.  Though relatively young, Fiona, the wife, begins to exhibit symptoms of dementia, and her husband places her in an assisted-living facility nearby.  There, losing her memory, she develops a relationship with another resident, a mute and brain-damaged man who dotes on her in a way her husband did not.  Her unfaithful husband finds himself in the unfamiliar position of the jealous spouse, experiencing a kind of karmic payback for his years of infidelity.  At the same time, the story gently and tenderly dissects their decades-long relationship, exposing to light the kinds of feelings and desires that often remain hidden, even to the most devoted of spouses.

There is rarely, if ever, an uncomplicated or unmessy relationship in a Munro story.  She tends to explore the underside of love: the forbidden desires, repressed resentments, concealed infidelities (large and small), and petty jealousies that are inescapable for human couples.  My favorite Munro stories tend to be her classic type, in which we follow the consciousness of a young woman in rural Canada, usually in the 1950s or 60s, as she navigates her way toward becoming her own person in a world that demands far less of her than that.  Perhaps that’s because these seem closest to Munro’s heart as well, and follow the details of her own life in some of their particulars: the dissatisfaction with young wife- and motherhood, the longing for meaningful experiences, the battle against low expectations for women.  The lives and experiences of these characters couldn’t be further from my own, yet I nearly always identify with them personally; even when I don’t, I am always, invariably, rooting for them to succeed, or persevere, or simply be who they want to be.

Not long before she won the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro announced that she was going to stop writing, because she has been writing and publishing since she was 20 years old (she’s now 82) and she was ready to retire.  Although she intimated that after winning the prize she might reconsider her decision, I’m glad that I haven’t even come close to making it through her entire oeuvre, so there are still many new Alice Munro stories for me to stumble across and savor.

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In Which Contemporary Literature Exposes the Fallacy of the Theory-Practice Dichotomy

I feel like I’ve been writing a lot lately about the theory-practice dichotomy.  The thing is, I’m not a big fan of false dichotomies or generic absolutism, but when ideas about language and writing are poorly wedded to the writing itself, the divide rears its ugly head.  This is what makes this kind of poor writing so awful: it calls into existence a problem that isn’t really there.  Theory and practice are one, or are each other, or don’t really exist as pure categories as such, unless you work really hard to pull them apart and isolate them in an effort to be showoffy.

ImageFortunately, I think there are a lot more contemporary writers working to use ideas about writing in order to make writing do the aesthetic and emotional work it can do than whatever the opposite of that is.  Two recent books of short stories by American writers, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove and George Saunders’ Tenth of December are fabulous examples of this.  Each of them, in different yet related ways, touches the heart of something human and real while still foregrounding the literariness and unreality of representation itself.

What both collections have in common is the whiff of the fantastical.  Strange, even supernatural occurrences abound, the impossible is.  It might seem strange to claim that stories that trade so heavily in the unreal make up some of the most real and honest writing I’ve read, but there is something about their experimentation with genre and language that gives access to a depth of feeling and beauty that is both unsentimental and unironic.  Why does this work here and not in, say, Embassytown?  Partly this is probably attributable to the skill of the writers, but partly I think it’s an attitude toward the unfamiliar and the unusual that doesn’t mark all difference as Other.

For example, the title story of Russell’s collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” re-envisions vampires simply as immortal versions of ourselves, captive to monstrous myths not about the terrifying Other, but about themselves.  These vampires don’t need blood to survive, but the legends they’ve heard about this need influence their desires.  They do suffer from a perpetual, unquenchable thirst, from which they find respite in various things, including, for a time, fresh lemons from the grove in the title.  Mostly, however, they are lonely; an immortal in a world of ephemeral beings, the narrator has only ever met one other vampire, his wife and partner of centuries.  But like all couples, their relationship suffers from misunderstanding, miscommunication, changing needs and desires.  The characters may be vampires, but their lives are recognizable, even quotidian, and their terrible thirst is our own.

Not all of the stories in Russell’s collection are as serious or supernatural, but they cover a wide array of locations and time periods as well as genres and themes: from the 19th century American West to Imperial Japan, from horror to science fiction to humor.  In a sense, Russell seems to play with all of these places and attitudes in order to underscore what is common between them: the human characters at their hearts, who share similar fears, joys, disappointments and triumphs no matter where or who they are.

10th of DecemberA similar premise underlies George Saunders’ work, although his literary world is more uniform from story to story, typically set in a present that looks much like our own but often with some of its most troubling features exaggerated in some small way that calls our attention to their injustice without being heavy handed.  George Saunders has become the poet of the vanishing American middle class, a prophet for those of us who wonder what we did wrong.  Recently, a commencement address Saunders delivered at Syracuse University’s 2013 graduation ceremony was widely circulated on the internet; in it, he argues in favor of kindness as the highest human goal, the thing that gives us access to our best selves, a true way of achieving success.  I think what makes his fiction so good, so important, is that even the silliest (and there is lots of silliness), most brutal (also some brutality), sad (of course: sadness) stories are also infused with this deep, profound awareness of everyone’s humanity and our shared burdens that can only be described as kindness.  It is a rare writer who could, say, make us sympathize with an incarcerated murderer subject to psycho-pharmalogical experimentation that has the hint of a science-fiction future but seems like it also might be happening right now.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite among these stories, but “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which I first read in The New Yorker, is one of the best.  It contains all of Saunders’ stylistic hallmarks: a conversational, colloquial syntax premised on the notion that the story is made up of diary entries; the hint of the fantastical, in the form of yard decorations made of young girls from third-world countries who volunteer to be strung together on a wire that passes through their brains; a protagonist struggling with the burdens of family, finances, and his own and others’ expectations.  Somehow, the intimate, almost jokey yet self-deprecating first-person voice combined with the strange device of the Semplica Girls evokes a tender, devastating portrait of suburban family life: the competition with the neighbors, the teetering upper-middle-class lifestyle, the balance between openness with and protection of one’s children and spouse.  And surrounding this, the chilling, not-quite-fictional atmosphere of international capitalism and its victims, both foreign and domestic.  These stories are short, precise, and clever, but there are deep pools of meaning swirling beneath the surface.

Both Russell’s and Saunders’ work represents some of the best of contemporary American fiction and its tremendous possibility.  It also does a service to literature more generally in its almost tender treatment of grand literary ideas and theories through unadorned, beautiful prose.  These are the kinds of stories that renew my faith in humanity, and in literature.

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Liking the “Unlikeable”

Recently, the writer Claire Messud attracted attention for her response to an interviewer’s question about the likeability (or unlikeability) of the female main character of her most recent novel.  Messud rightly pointed out a long list of mostly male unlikeable but iconic characters and noted, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”  A flurry of commentary on sexism and likeability ensued.  ImageI relate this recent anecdote as preface because it underlines the achievement of Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s 13 connected short stories about a small town in Maine, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 despite our literary culture’s apparent aversion to prickly or “unlikeable” female characters.  Olive, the title character, who is central to some of the stories but appears only peripherally in others, is angry, depressed, disagreeable, and short-tempered, yet she also proves to be loyal, wise, kind, and sympathetic, a woman with a rich inner life that is frustratingly out of accord with her outer one.

In addition to telling Olive’s story, the book tells the story of the town and many of its inhabitants, linked in complicated but quotidian ways.  Nothing much happens, but a lot always seems to be happening.  Marriages form and break up, people get sick and die, make friends, move away, remember their childhoods, which invariably include memories of Olive Kitteridge, who for many years was the math teacher at the local junior high school.  This links Olive to virtually every other inhabitant of Crosby, Maine, and makes her in some small way indispensible to many of the characters.  We learn of her hidden wisdom, sympathy, and understanding through the eyes of former students, who remember years later advice or comfort she once gave.

But these moments of softness are only punctuation marks to Olive’s aggressive, biting personality.  When her son gets married and she overhears her new daughter-in-law complaining about her, you feel sympathy for Olive but know that you would think the same if you were her daughter-in-law.  In fact, right after Olive hears her daughter-in-law making some  mildly critical comments about her son’s upbringing and the dress she’s worn to the wedding, Olive goes into her closet and draws on one of her sweaters with a black marker, then steals one shoe and one bra, just to mess with her head.  It’s incredibly childish, ridiculous even, but also very Olive.

So why do we want to read about Olive, or any other unsympathetic character?  For each of them there is probably a different reason.  Humbert Humbert’s a pedophile, but he’s a literate, passionate lover of Lolita; Raskolnikov’s a murderer, but he’s thoughtful about his crime; and Olive Kitteridge is a bitter woman disappointed in life, but one whose human capacity for emotion surfaces at exactly the right moments.  In a way, her own sadness allows her a measure of empathy with other suffering characters that offer them support or help no one else could.  She inadvertently interferes with the suicide of one of her former students when she happens upon him as he is on his way to shoot himself in the woods, slowly changing his mind, it seems, as she speaks frankly and presciently about her own father’s suicide.  In another story, when a number of the town residents encounter an anorexic girl who needs help, it’s Olive who gets through to her, recognizing that her own overeating comes from the same place as the girl’s need for starvation.  Like many tender moments in the book, this one is encapsulated in an almost inexplicably moving image: “Hesitantly, she [Olive] raised her hand, started to put it down, then raised it again, and touched the girl’s head.  She must have felt, beneath her large hand, something Harmon [the main character in this story] didn’t see, because she slid her hand down to the girl’s bone of a shoulder, and the girl – tears creeping from her closed eyes – leaned her cheek on Olive’s hand.”

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Elizabeth Strout receiving the Pulitzer for Olive Kitterirdge in 2009.

It’s quite an achievement to humanize a character as difficult as Olive, but Strout manages to make her both sympathetic and likeable by the end, perhaps because she grows and changes, despite her age.  One of the lovely things about this book is its depiction of the inner lives and relationships of the late-middle-aged and elderly without sentimentality.  Like Olive’s character, the other, mostly older, characters in the book are shown to be fully human, not simple or doddering or having lost interest in life over time.  Like Olive, they don’t just want to live, but they want to live fully, despite the infirmities or inevitable losses of age.  Age is perhaps the least sympathetic character of all, yet in Olive Kitteridge, like Olive herself, it’s treated with honesty and respect.

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