Over the summer holiday period I’ve been reading a fair number of short stories: some volumes by individual authors along with an assortment of contributions by different hands, and various pieces in newspapers and literary magazines. I’ve also been writing a few, encouraged by the appearance of one of my stories in the North American journal Antipodes (December 2013 issue).
So the strengths and weaknesses of the short story form have been on my mind again. I say ‘again’, because many years ago I wrote a little book about this genre and tried to ponder its inherent possibilities and limitations.
To some readers, short stories often seem very slight, sketching a situation cursorily before arriving in haste at an inconsequential or contrived ending. Howard Nemerov expresses that view trenchantly:
Short stories amount for the most part to parlour tricks, party favours with built-in snappers, gadgets for inducing recognitions and reversals: a small pump serves to build up the pressure, a tiny trigger releases it, there follows a puff and a flash as freedom and necessity combine; finally a celluloid doll drops from the muzzle and descends by parachute to the floor. These things happen, but they happen to no-one in particular.
The formulaic artifice of two or three pieces in Best Australian Stories 2002, edited by Peter Craven (on my shelf for years, picked up again last week) may deserve that kind of dismissal. But most of them don’t. Sometimes our hurried habits of reading are at fault; skimming over the surface, we can miss latent implications. The story that moved me most in Craven’s anthology is Joan London’s ‘The New Dark Age’, and only on re-reading it did I see how much of its Chekhovian pathos comes from understated echoes in phrase and image. Its central character, George, is wearily trying to rediscover normality after emerging from the ‘long winter’ of a serious illness. But he is dogged by fatigue, deeper than physical, which prevents him from responding adequately to his unhappy wife Kristina or treating his faithful employee Ulla with the generosity she deserves. There are things he cannot express to them. The kind of music that has been central in his life seems now to take him through ‘a strange harsh landscape.’ Falling asleep as he listens to it, he dreams of snowy Russian streets; and afterwards he feels unable to tell Kristina or Ulla ‘that what he remembered most was the pull he felt, strong as love or nostalgia, to give up, lie down in the snow, and close his eyes.’
Small-scale prose fiction requires us to be carefully attentive to every phrase, every nuance. At its best it can have the subtlety and sustained intensity of a lyrical poem, suggesting much more than it makes explicit.
There are other fine examples of this in three books I’ve read recently: Dear Life, by the Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, and two by Western Australian writers, Amanda Curtin’s Inherited (UWAP) and Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky (also UWAP). Each collection assembles 15 or more pieces, with some thematic interlinkages but considerable stylistic and structural diversity.
In Midalia’s wry and sometimes poignant stories, the historical and the geographical often come together uneasily with the personal to disconcert her characters. The first piece in the book, ‘Underground’, typifies this conjunction. Petra, the focal character, is a middle-aged Australian tourist whose experience of visiting Russia disappoints her romantic expectations. She’d wanted to feel ‘the grandeur of history’ but the reality of modern Russia strikes her as tawdry. The story’s title, which initially refers to Moscow’s famous metro railway with its ornate stations, comes instead to signify the subterranean chamber displaying Lenin’s embalmed corpse. Despite finding Red Square distasteful, Petra goes to see this mausoleum because she had promised her teenage nephew that she’d do so. Joining a sluggish queue, descending the black marble steps, she gazes at the waxy face and strange hands of the long-dead leader with a fleeting sense that Lenin himself looks perplexed, as if ‘lost to some dream of history.’ The ensuing conclusion doesn’t overreach. There’s no forcing of an epiphany – just the hint of a faintly modified apprehension of the world as Petra emerges from the tomb into daylight.
The genre of the short story form can lend itself well to the kind of narration where much of the action takes place inside someone’s head as an interior monologue. One of the most powerful stories in Amanda Curtin’s Inherited is ‘Cradle of Shadows’, in which the narrative foreground seems at first to comprise merely a woman’s reminiscences about her maternal predecessors, especially her great-grandmother. But folded into her rumination is a startling episode from World War 1, a tale of violence, pain, infanticide and guilt. Reflecting on the opacities of this episode and anticipating the consequences of a decision she herself has just made about her own pregnancy, the narrator recognises that in families the ‘burdens laid down by one generation must be shouldered by another.’
The distinctive qualities of Alice Munro’s short fiction are well described by Susan Sheridan in her review of Dear Life for the Sydney Review of Books. As Susan remarks, the characters seem ‘ordinary’ and ‘the situations they enter into are banal – marriage and adultery, conflicts between parents and children, ageing and its discontents, loneliness in many forms.’ But the artfulness that animates the stories is particularly subtle in Munro’s ‘use of point of view and her manipulation of narrative time.’ Their action often moves ‘backwards and forwards, apparently at random’ in such a way that meanings emerge bit by bit and behaviour is explained ‘only obliquely.’ A striking example is the story ‘In Sight of the Lake’, in which the final paragraph causes a reader to reframe the significance of everything that has gone before: the focal character’s meanderings turn out not to be quite what they seemed.
Oblique revelations, indirect disclosures, ambiguous insights – short fiction frequently has those features. We get only glimpses of what is going on in the minds of many of the characters who pass like shadows through the pages of Munro, Midalia, Curtin and other skilled exponents of this genre. And it’s precisely the lack of full access to whatever depths of emotion they may experience that can grip the reader’s imagination – because it evokes the ‘baffled curiosity’ we frequently feel in our dealings with people around us. The phrase ‘baffled curiosity’ comes from William James, the 19th-century philosopher who also coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ and whose brother was the great storyteller Henry James. William remarked that Henry’s stories give to us…
an impression like that we often get of people in life: their orbits come out of space and lay themselves for a short time along ours, and then off they whirl again into the unknown, leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of our being.