Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Good Things Come in Small Packages

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff has made me reconsider my idea of what a short story is.  Up until now, I have always thought of a short story as a starter novel, or if the author is really lucky, the first chapter of a novel.  The idea being that a person couldn't possibly write a novel until she has worn herself out writing short stories, and is ready to move on to a bigger project.  I've read lots of collections of short stories, many of them meaningful enough that I think back to them years later.  One such book is The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel (obviously), from which I retained the "fact" that one doesn't save gas by driving with the windows down instead of using air conditioning.  Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is another great collection of stories, which actually won the Pulitzer Prize.  I sometimes think of one of Lahiri's stories where a couple on the verge of a breakup get to know each other again during a series of power outages.

None of these books, however, changed my perception of a short story being just a beginning.  Then came Wolff, and his collection.  The Night in Question includes several stories that are so powerful, that I've now realized that a short story can't be stretched into a novel.  A short story is, or at least should be, a story of such intensity that the tension could not possibly be maintained for longer than 20 or 30 pages.  The most intense of Wolff's is the namesake of the collection, The Night in Question, in which one of the characters begs the other to stop telling the story that he is telling, because she can guess where it is going, and doesn't want to hear the tragedy.  The reader is right there with her.  My favorite, however, and the one that I think I am most likely to remember is Flyboys

Flyboys, on its surface, is the story of a boy who is probably in his early teens, and his choice to hang out with a boy who he considers lucky, instead of one who seems to be cursed.  The "lucky" friend, Clark, is wealthier, and bad things don't seem to happen to him.  However when the main character (who I'll call "Tobias" since he isn't named) returns to the unlucky friend's house, he falls into old habits, and the warmth of a loving, if unfortunate family.  The unlucky boy, Freddy, has a banter with "Tobias", where they trade old sayings like "growing like a weed", "by leaps and bounds", etc.  I think that whenever I hear the phrase "home is where the heart is" I will think back to that story, and know where Tobias' heart should be.  While "Tobias" and the outside world may see Clark as being the lucky one, the reader gets a hint that Clark may be missing some of the things that Freddy has.  If it was possible to turn this short story into a full length novel, it would be Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

My favorite quote from Wolff's book besides "home is where the heart is" is this, from the story called Powder:  "My father in his forty-eighth year, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty."  I'd like to think of the perfect adjectives for my father in his sixty-eighth year, but am sure that I'll never come up with anything as accurate as this character's description of his father driving along a closed road in order to make it home in time for Christmas dinner.

The Night in Question was a NYT Notable Book for 1996.  I got it at the 2010 Typical Book Group book exchange.  Thanks Michele!

Another book finished for the Off the Shelf Challenge!  9 more to go.

Next up:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes  This book won the Man Booker Prize for 2011.  Today the Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced for 2012.  You can find out who was nominated by clicking here.  The only book that I have even heard of is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which is on my list of Books Waiting for Me to Read Them, to your right.

Still Listening to:  Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

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