Shall I compare thee to a kick in the chest?

I’m searching google: “a short story is like a…” Stephen King says a short story is like “a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” Somebody says, “like a diamond.” No. “Like a snapshot.” Nope, boring. “Like a very rough sketch for a painting.” No, it’s not. “A short story is like a quiet bomb.” Hmmm. T. C. Boyle: “A short story is like a toothache and you must drill it and fill it.” Getting closer…

Whenever I finish reading a short story, it’s always really hard for me to start another. I always remember the last experience with mixed feelings, like a ride at an amusement park that made me nauseous even as it thrilled me, made me think about the possibility of dying. “Oh no, you’re not getting me back on that thing again.” I could never read stories back to back. There’s always a period of convalescence. And stories, to compare forms of torture, are worse than novels. I much prefer novels in the long run. Maybe it’s the difference between a knife to the gut and a prolonged hospital stay. 

And those are the good ones. When I finish a Philip Roth novel, I always feel exhausted. He always goes too far, past the point of propriety, past the point of getting it right. That’s his strength. In American Pastoral, over and over again to the point of masochism, the story of the all-American family and its tragic descent into disenchantment and loss is rehearsed, as if the narrator is putting himself through a protracted penance for the illusions he’d once held about himself and his country. Sabbath’s Theatre is just as torturous, though it’s a funnier book and there is something of a redemption at the end, albeit a grotesque, urolagnic one.

But the violence of a good story is of a different kind, I guess because of its concision. I read short stories in one sitting; there isn’t as much time to process things. I wouldn’t classify everything I’ve read lately as being “painful” - some of the stories, by Eudora Welty, by Roberto Bolano - have left me more with a sense of cosmic mystery and wonder than anything else. But others have been harsh indeed. Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is as direct and punishing as they come. A man’s life in fifty pages. The brief glimpse of absolution at the end doesn’t alleviate what’s just been gone through - fifty pages of banality, declining health, bitter suffering, and, though the ending looks to deny it, nihilism. I read some Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever stories this year too, that similarly put you through the ringer. (And these guys are the believers! Discuss.) 

I always feel that it’s the form in a good story that is the consolation. That’s the beauty, the repreive. I marveled this year at how fast and loose certain stories were. In Eudora Welty’s The Hitch-Hikers, one thing follows another so nimbly, there is not a moment of slackness, not a moment at which you feel her digging uncomfortably in as though to say something. It felt very raw and exciting. How long did it take her to write it, I wonder. John Cheever’s The Country Husband (I know these are probably classics for anyone more deeply in love with the form, but I’m just getting to them) has something of the same quality. A weirdly unexamined plane crash, a dog with more life and freedom than the principals, a strange appearance of a woman from the past, also under-remaked, a strangely ubiquitous neighbor girl, like an annoying angel presence. This story has the same dreamlike atmosphere as the Welty; one thing following another. The forms as stringy and additive. Another book I read this year, Denis Johnson’s famous Jesus’ Son, takes this to the extreme.

Another reason I generally don’t look forward to reading short stories - besides the pain of seeing oneself - is that so many of them seem to follow very conventional patterns, both in form and action. It’s become such a testing grounds for authors, the short story, that there seems to be a tacit set of must-haves: the action nobody could have predicted, the bravura sentence, the tempestuous non-action, the lethargic writer character. They really try to pack it all in. That or they really try not to pack it in and then you have that other hell: the story of ennui. Even very good stories sometimes feel surprising in not entirely unexpected ways, if that makes any sense. One story that really breaks through all of that just by sheer will is Roberto Bolano’s Prefiguration of Lalo Cura. Bolano is so reckless sometimes. It’s hilarious and exciting; you don’t have time to think about what it’s doing, where it’s going. Bolano didn’t either. 

Artists in pictures: Flannery O’Connor

I read two essays that I can say I really loved this year. One was by Elif Batuman, about Tolstoy, Tolstoy scholars, and lots of other things along the way. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book it came from. The other was an old essay about peafowl (and lots of other things along the way) by Flannery O’Connor called The King of the Birds. I don’t know how or why, but there was something pretty close to sublimity in that apparently modest little piece.

Saint Passionate


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