At Books on the Nightstand, we’re dubbing 2013 “The Year of the Short Story.” In celebration, I’m reading one story a day, for the entire year. To read previous blog posts about Project Short Story, click the tab at the top of the page.
Setting and voice emerge as the reigning themes in my reading this week.
I’ve been keeping a written journal of my stories, where I write more in detail about each story, summarizing the plot, making note of sentences or word choices that I find interesting, and not worrying that anyone is going to see it and think, “what an idiot!” But I will share this excerpt, which I wrote after I had read the first sentence of Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (from Bloodchild and Other Stories:
“What I am enjoying about short stories is that almost-tangible moment at the beginning, when there is no idea in my mind what kind of world I am about to enter.
Unlike a novel, where the reader generally has some idea of setting (from flap copy, reviews, whatever), each story begins completely anew. I love that.”
“Bloodchild” was my first Octavia Butler story. I had previously read her novel, Kindred, which dealt with time travel and slavery. So when I read the first line of this story, I realized that I had no idea where Ms. Butler was taking me. The line that sparked that thought: “My last night of childhood began with a visit home. T’Gatoi’s sister had given us two sterile eggs.”
This is definitely science fiction; a world where humans and larger-than-human grub-like creatures blend their families. But I see why Butler is considered a master of the genre, and I will be reading more of her work.
I began the week with ”Honeydew” by Edith Pearlman, in Best American Short Stories 2012. I really love Edith Pearlman’s writing. Set at a private school, the story opens with a conference between Alice, the headmaster, Emily, a student with an eating disorder, and Emily’s parents. Though the school acts as the primary setting, the “real” setting in the story seemed to me to be the world inside Emily’s mind, reflected by her fascination with insects. The story feels almost novel-like, with Pearlman wrapping up all of the details at the end, so that the reader turns the page feeling completely satisfied.
Last week’s “discovery” of Steven Millhauser was such a delight that I wanted more. Reader Robin commented on last week’s post, recommending the Octavia Butler story I mentioned above, and ”In the Reign of Harad IV” by Millhauser, from The New Yorker, April 10, 2006 (it also appears in Millhauser’s collection Dangerous Laughter). In this story, our main character is a miniaturist for the King, building small replicas that are exquisitely crafted. He begins to make objects that are smaller and smaller, creating things invisible to the naked eye, and then invisible even under magnification. This story feels like a fable. I loved it. You can listen to the story on The New Yorker Fiction podcast, read by Cynthia Ozick.
“The Loyalty Protocol” by Ben Marcus (from Granta 122, Winter 2013 edition) gave me a world that is preparing for some sort of disaster. We meet Edward in the middle of an emergency drill. Before reporting to the gathering point, Edward picks up his parents, who have not been invited to participate in the drill, and this decision caused Edward to be chastised by the leaders. The story is dark, but also funny in spots. It contains possibly the best “berating” scene I’ve ever read.
“Sons and Mothers” by Steven Millhauser, in Tin House Vol 14, Number 2. You can tell I may have a new favorite author. This story is different from the two Millhauser stories I’ve read previously. It’s a sadder, more personal and more universal story. Our nameless narrator visits his mother while on a business trip. It’s been awhile since he’s been to see her, and he can’t stay long. The portrait of an adult child seeing a parents’ aging, and then seeming to deny it, is heartbreaking, and hits close to home.
As part of my new infatuation with Millhauser, I found myself wondering if I would enjoy his novels as much as I love his stories. What would Millhauser’s voice feel like sustained over the 200 pages of a novel?
And that led me down yet another path. One of my favorite novels last year was Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home. Told from three points of view, the novel is very strong across all of the voices. One of my first impressions of A Land More Kind Than Home was that it felt almost like interlinked short stories; each narrator’s story could have stood on its own, though the intersection of the narratives gave the novel its great power. I follow Wiley Cash on Twitter, and as I was reading some of his tweets, I had the urge to read one of his short stories. So I tweeted him and asked if he had anything available that I could track down. He kindly offered to send me 2 stories that were previously published. (Don’t you love twitter?)
Both stories were short, so I read them back to back. First, “Grenadine,” published in The Louisiana Review, Spring 2007. In this story, the reader is immediately addressed directly by a woman, telling us about the summer she was named Kudzu Queen of Enoree, Mississippi. It’s an incredibly effective point of view, and reminded me of one of my favorite books, Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.
“Bottle Rockets,” published in Carolina Quarterly 60.1 (Winter 2010) was an even shorter story; it ran just two pages on my iPad. A young boy narrates, tells of sitting with his grandfather, watching the grandfather’s store burn down.
Both stories gave me that same sense of place and character of voice that I loved so much in Wiley Cash’s novel. They are the kind of voices that feel real and true, and that you carry with you through the day as you go about your work.
I highly recommend hunting down these stories by Wiley Cash, but in the meantime, I urge you to pick up A Land More Kind Than Home, which was just released in paperback. And I may just go back on twitter and lobby Wiley Cash to bring out a story collection.