Sunday, May 9, 2010

Briefly, about short stories

Thanks to my friend Lisa over at Like Fire, I learned that May is Short Story Month. At the main short story month page at the Emerging Writers Network, you'll find a bunch of short story related links, and through the month of May there will be more posts devoted to short stories. I'm definitely planning to return to see what's up there. I did note that right now they have up a couple of posts on short stories by Tracy Daugherty, with whom I studied for awhile at the University of Oregon in the early 90s. (He needs to update his website to include his newest book, the biography of Donald Barthelme, which came out last year.) I think of Tracy whenever I think of the Isaac Babel quote he had up in his office: "You must know everything." Talk about intimidating. (The quote, not Tracy.)

That May is short story month is fitting because I was going to write about short stories anyway. I don't read them much anymore--not as much as I used to, at least--but I just finished Amy Bloom's new book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, and I wanted to give it a mention. I'd enjoyed her first book of stories, Come to Me, and when I saw the new one on the library shelf, it looked intriguing.

Of the 12 stories in the book, only 4 stand entirely on their own. The other eight stories are two sets of four linked stories, the first set about William and Clare, who begin an affair while married to their long time spouses. The second set of linked stories re-introduces us to Julia and Lionel, stepmother and stepson, who, after the death of Julia's husband and Lionel's father, spend one irrevocable night together, the repercussions of which continue for decades.

I know that this may be sacrilegious during short story month--though I hope it's not--but I mostly wanted to write about how much I enjoy linked stories. Linked stories sort of take away the purity of the short story--it's not necessarily a perfect and complete whole because you can turn the page and find out more about the same characters. Still, though, it's a form I really enjoy. The two four story sets in Bloom's book give us the range of a novel in a much shorter space. Details are elided, time jumps without warning. No matter. In each, there's a wider story arc, a sense of movement, of completion. People don't really write novellas much anymore, but that's basically what these are.

Reading Bloom's linked stories made me think back to one of my best books of 2009, Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which ends with 3 linked stories which are the emotional heart of the book. And that made me think back to other sets of linked stories I've enjoyed over the years. There's Elinor Lipman, whose The Family Man, was also on my favorite books of 2009 list, but whose first book--Into Love and Out Again--included a series of stories about Tim McCormack, who meets the cool, blond Hannah Thorson on line at the DMV and falls in love instantly, despite the fact that Hannah is 9 months pregnant. And then there's one of my favorite Laurie Colwin books, Another Marvelous Thing, which chronicles the unlikely love affair between a gallant older man and a cranky younger woman, Francis Clemens and Josephine Delielle, known as Billy. We see them together, we see them break up, we see Billy's baby with her husband Gray, and we see them reunite, in a fashion, one more time, in the story called "A Couple of Old Flames." Among its other many fine qualities, this book contains one of my favorite pickup lines in literature. It is in the first story, titled, "My Mistress."
Billy and I met at a reception to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the journals to which we are both contributors. We fell into a spirited conversation during which Billy asked me if this reception wasn't the most boring thing I had ever been to. I said it wasn't, by a long shot. Billy said: "I can't stand these things where you have to stand up and be civilized. People either yawn, itch, or drool when they get bored. Which do you do?"

I said I yawned.

"Huh," said Billy. "You don't look much like a drooler. Let's get out of here."
And with that, I'm going to end for the moment. Happy Mother's Day!

1 comment:

Alexandra Grabbe said...

Curious how there are so many collections of linked short stories appearing right now! (I loved Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Strout.) My problem with linked short stories is that by the time you get a collection in front of an agent, linked short stories will no longer be the "trend."

Thanks for your recommendations here. I would like to learn to write short stories. A collection I really enjoyed was One More Year, by Sana Krasikov.