Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane

Readers (and publishers) have had a long and ever-evolving relationship with short story collections. Stories may seem best suited for the places you usually find them—magazines, journals, and now, online sources. Short pieces are concentrated and self-sufficient, intended in most cases to be read in one sitting. In recent years, the rise of the short story has been announced by some in publishing who claim the shorter form is especially suited to our social media age, wherein information is doled out in bite-size nuggets and attention spans are decreasing. Yet, why shouldn't these writers compile collections and publish them in book form? Many recent collections have garnered national attention. It's an unwieldy and diverse form, just like the novel. Which brings up related questions: how should story collections be unified and organized? If the stories interrelate, at what point does it become a novel?

Honestly, I don’t lose much sleep over the labeling business. I’m happy to call a book whatever the author wants to call it. But I do lose sleep over finding the right package for my own writing ideas. Like many writers, I started out with short fiction and at some point, felt that my ideas needed more room so I made the shift to novels. I’m a long-time subscriber to a few magazines that feature stories and yet, I seldom read them. Why? I don’t know! Lately, I’ve been seeking out more short fiction for selfish reasons, because I’m working on my own collection. Periodically, I return to Flannery O’ Connor and Katherine Anne Porter for inspiration, and yet, I didn’t write anything in the shorter form until a subject seemed to call for it. (Oh, and reading the collected works of Lydia Davis a few years ago opened up a whole new world.)

It seems to me that subject dictates form, then, and there’s a great freedom in knowing other writers are stretching the boundaries, breaking established “rules” for different forms, and most importantly—being read. Jessica Francis Kane’s collection This Close is a good example. Kane unifies her collection with a central theme: the gray area in relationships, how people come “this close” to true communion with another soul and the ways they fall short, misunderstand and misinterpret. A young man agonizes over his interactions with the mother of a friend who has died, a woman is threatened by a neighbor’s relationship with her elderly father. Human connections and how they confound us at times. The longer pieces in the collection are perhaps on the short side and there are two pieces that come in under a page. Each story is focused and perceptive, its own world. Some of them interrelate with the same characters and show their progression; some don’t. The entire collection is 178 pages. So that’s the structure of it. The question is, does it work? It most certainly does. The writing is poignant and vivid and touching. The characters are relatable and in clear focus. I’d give Kane and these stories what is probably the biggest compliment I can give: I read it very slowly. I was completely content in the world of each piece and was in no hurry to get to the next one. I nodded my head several times while reading. I was surprised and perplexed and entirely engaged. She has a perceptive way of getting to the essence of a person, a situation, and holding us captive as we wriggle and watch and eventually, turn the mirror on ourselves.

Perhaps the shorter form isn’t really suited to a fast-paced world after all. If a story is done right, you shouldn’t want to rush through it. This crystallized form of narrative takes much polishing and care, and Jessica Francis Kane has offered a collection of gems with This Close. If you have a moment to spare, or several moments, I highly recommend you give it a read.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the inspiration. And best success with your collection.
    Some of my stories languish in folders to be forever improved.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka