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Last year there was an International Short Story Day and… I guess I missed it!

On one of the official website’s pages is a collection of writers recommending one ‘classic’ and one ‘modern’ short story. Some have online links.

No major thoughts, other than Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” and Lawrence’s “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” factor strongly. No complaints there! Though I should say the D.H. Lawrence story is badly titled. Or, at least, I often have to check a synopsis to make sure it’s the story I think it is.

Playing the same game, to an audience of one… This is tough. Rather, I know what my modern story is, but classic one… I should put up Bartleby, the Scrivener but I’ll pass that by out of random pique.

CLASSIC:
Leo Tolstoy, “The Three Hermits”. Short story as parable. Everyone knows the count’s titanic novels. Most everyone knows the massive novellas. Yet it’s actively hard to find a book of his short stories, though at least you’ll find “Alyosha the Pot” and “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” and “God Sees The Truth, But Waits” often in larger old fashioned anthologies. I don’t share his spirituality but admire it just the same, deeply.

MODERN:
James Graham Ballard, “The Drowned Giant”. The story that followed me from childhood until I discovered its writer was quite a guy. Much about this one has impacted me, lately the refusal to get into the rationale or history of the strange: it just is. And then we turn away, not able to keep caring.

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Lately I’ve been trying to read a short story a day, which would be evening, but home after work, tired, watching an infant becoming more and more a toddler, by the time he hits the hay, wiped and wanting to keep up with novels and eek out something of my own. In any case…

“Rough Deeds,” Annie Proulx. Feels like part of a novel? Feels tightly researched, this story about timber mills in Canada and Maine decades before their countries were formed. Both tightly researched yet jumpy in terms of getting the narrative finished, about a years-long vendetta following violence in the wilderness.

“Still Life,” Don DeLillo. Did not know, once reading, but expected, that it was part of his novel Falling Man. Still believe Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is the only credible take on how things felt just after. Much of this piece feels wrong – no one is acting quite how people acted afterwards, but then Mr. DeLillo isn’t always great at characterization, more at brittle, confining ideas. I don’t think ‘suicide bomber’ was in conversational currency until later. I could be wrong. Felt as inert as, say, Cosmopolis was inert.

“Dimension,” Alice Munro. It is crushing to read about the deaths of children now that I have a young son. Primarily this read as the literary analog to Dear Zachary, the devastating documentary from a while back. Leaving it there, this would have been a dark, anguished stone of a story, yet Munro keeps going, bothering with Lloyd’s metaphysical hogwash that feels risible after such a pounding – risible, yet admittedly goofily, scarily plausible, coming from a lunatic. Already the story feels too long. Then she compounds it with what I assume was an internal desire to force a happy conclusion and suddenly a bathetic, sappy event pops up to brush aside the earlier impact.

“Black Box,” Jennifer Egan. Have only read A Visit From the Goon Squad but now I’m thinking she could be the brightest American writer right now, even if she hasn’t hit her marks. (The ‘linked short stories’ thing obscures that novel.) She is willing to go pretty far afield in this one – imagining a squicky bit of sex-dripped espionage. Mostly I’m impressed with the narrative strategies she employs. Here, the subjunctive tense combines with the second person to assert actions instead of suggest them. The story is marred by cutesy use of future-tech devices, which I think will be dated, a sweeping turn into supa-adventure James Bond territory, and a needlessly sentimental return to the character’s domestic memories and past. But she surprises with her observations and her strategies are great. Thinking of the first chapter of Goon Squad, with the adroit flash forwards/temporal shifts. Looking forward to more of her, but I fret about a constant turn toward – god help me – bourgeouis mawkishness / middle-brow crowd-pleasingness.

“That in Aleppo Once…”, Vladimir Nabokov. Often mentioned as one of the great butterfly hunter’s key short stories, I don’t get it. Character not sound or convincing enough to care whether his memories of a wife are true or not. His language as marvelous as ever, yet, unmodulated, it does what it usually does in his writing: plates up any humanity behind sheaves of armor and ratchets up the gamesmanship. By setting this as a letter we deal with yet another Nabokovian unreliable narrator and here it’s tiresome. A whiff of the bat on this one for me.

I’ve left plenty of books behind. Trying to do it less than before, a matter of concentration, but there are books you realize you don’t have the time for (books, unlike one’s hours, are infinite). One shouldn’t feel an obligation to finish everything cracked open.

There are books that bear fruit but seem so awash in… something… that the idea of finishing makes me miserable. Well, the big example is Roberto BolaƱo’s Savage Detectives. In the winter I got mired in the interminable middle section, one first hand account of two aging poets coursing over the globe after another, put it aside, picked it up again two months ago, made this second section less interminable, and put it down again. The damn thing is 656 pages, this middle part something like half that number and… I think I get the point: these once energetic Wunderkinder were just blowhards and nothing came of them. I got this as soon as I met them.

So I don’t count that in the below.

There are three novels so far that I felt were completed before the end. I got to a certain point in each one and felt, “Welp, there’s the novel: there’s no need to go on.” This is a minor risk, it seems — that your tremendous novel may reach a point of emotional or intellectual closure such that continuing on requires revving up a new set of engines. Or, indeed, feel like a new novel is beginning. Or such.

Anyway. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Pynchon’s V. Stephan Zweig’s Post Office Girl.

The Woman in White is great fun. Funny, headlong, suspenseful in that harmless way; when Count Fosco, et al, make their circle complete around our heroes, it feels they have done such a villainous job that they’ve won. When it was clear they would gain their comeuppance by way of that olde Victorian-era coincidence I couldn’t move on. To me the bad guys won, full stop.

V. This novel troubles me – so oblique, so pleaselessly chaotic, its central symbol (the woman V.) obscured by structure, it is nevertheless self-evidently great. But once we move through nose jobs and sewer-priests to the rats and to the German atrocities in Southwestern Africa, the whole enterprise stops cold. It’s such an absorbing, brutal portion that… well, there’s the old term ‘show stopper’. Normally that meant an aria or dance sequence so good it stopped the show’s pacing with applause, but here, I just couldn’t imagine going back to the random counterculture Whole Sick Crew rigamarole. I get it: the 20th Century was filled with atrocity. You did a great job.

The Post Office Girl. Have I read anything this delightful, this absorbant with detail, so infected with burgeoning life, so well- and closely-observed? This novel, the first half of it at least, is immensely impressive. Quiet and domestic, it examines the point of view of a young woman plucked by gentle fate from a thankless bureaucratic job to spend time with a very wealthy aunt and uncle in an expensive hotel in Switzerland, dateline between the wars. Can I say how remarkably described this is, from shuffing her frumpy dress to the attentions of an old English general? And then she hasn’t seen the jealousy of the other young women and it ends for her and in the dead of predawn she mounts a train home, head a whirl. I haven’t started the second half and may never: this is the novel, isn’t it? A perfect capsule of a life lead, of rustic petit-poverty raised for a moment to effervescent greatness, that effervescent greatness shown momentarily for the lie it is, and then snuff the whole thing out in her return? By accounts the second half is quite different, but I should trust in Zweig’s powers, shouldn’t I? But do I need to?

“Well, they are very frightening for me because their stupidity is so flat. You look into the eyes of a chicken and you lose yourself in a completely flat, frightening stupidity. They are like a great metaphor for me… I kind of love chicken, but they frighten me more than any other animal.”
– Werner Herzog