Varieties of Weirdness in the American Short Story
January 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Finished: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; What He’s Poised to Do, by Ben Greenman.
Reading next: The Fifty-Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.
An odd connection to make, but Ben Greenman’s book of short stories reminded me of something that Stephen King wrote about one of his own stories, “The Moving Finger,” about a very long finger coming out of a toilet. King writes to the effect (I don’t have the text directly to hand) that short stories are the form in which you’re still allowed, occasionally, to let weirdness happen with no logic or explanation, and that it’s one of his favorite things about writing stories as opposed to novels.
The comment’s always stuck with me, and I’ve come to think that short stories are an inherently weird form. They are, by their nature, too short to explain everything. In their own ways, short story masterpieces by Raymond Carver or James Joyce are as full of unexplained or inexplicable weirdness as “The Moving Finger,” just of a different kind: weirdness of character, of expression, of incident that would take far too many words to attempt to decipher completely.
I might suggest that this inherent condition of the short story has, perhaps contrary to expectations, been exacerbated in U.S. fiction by MFA writing programs in which everyone’s struggling to churn out stories, and looking for new angles to take. Greenman is very skilled, and I enjoyed the book. But some of the stories here are redolent of workshop and exercise.
The most obviously weird decisions in Greenman’s book are the settings of his stories “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That” and “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy for Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above.” Each story in the book is introduced with a “postmark,” in keeping with the theme of old-fashioned paper correspondence that runs through each story. The postmark for “Seventeen Different Ways” is “Lunar City, 1989.” It’s set on a moon colony, in the year 1989. “Govindan…” is from “Australindia, 1921.” It is set in a “former boomerang factory… on the border between India and Australia.”
But there’s other oddity that’s not so overt. The first and last stories, each a single four-page paragraph (EXERCISE: write a story in one sentence/paragraph/quotation), exhibit Carver-style weirdness: characters left unnamed for stylistic and thematic effect, acting like strangers to themselves. And another story with a truly excessively long title, “Country Life Is the Only Life Worth Living, Country Love Is the Only Love Worth Giving,” is narrated by a hilariously horny monster, with questions abounding from his every objectionable statement. And yet it’s perhaps my favorite story in the book: you can get away with this over eight pages, with nothing but questions and laughter. It’s the nature of the form.