Monday, February 10, 2014

Immediacy in Fiction

For the past year, I’ve been reading lots of short stories. I outlined some of the collections in a previous post here, and three made my Best of 2013 list here. I just finished two more: Dear Life by Alice Munro, and a collection chosen by David Sedaris entitled Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, which includes work by Flannery O’Connor, Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Mansfield, among others, and which was recommended to me by a thoughtful friend (thanks, Margery!). All of the stories in this one were remarkable and it was interesting to think of each as being an influence on Sedaris’s writing and what I know of him. I was particularly touched by Jean Thompson’s Applause, Applause, which has something to say to writers struggling in one way or another. Munro’s collection begins with a couple of knock-outs, really just masterful stuff, and is strong throughout. I guess those Nobel people know a little something after all.

This morning, I’m thinking about all of these stories I’ve recently read and trying to put a finger on what, if anything, they all have in common. And this may seem like a very obvious thing that I’m about to say but here it is: all of these stories have an immediacy and familiarity about them. They waste no time in making the reader feel that he has been plopped down into the middle of something, from their opening lines. This is the nature of the short story, isn’t it, the brevity, the impact? There’s no time for long asides or extended pages of back story and really, for any labored character analysis. Here’s the opening to Applause, Applause:

"Poor Bernie, Ted thought, as rain thudded against the car like rotten fruit. Watching it stream and bubble on the windshield, he promised himself not to complain about it lest Bernie’s feelings be hurt. He was anxious to impress this on his wife. Poor Bernie, he said aloud. Things never work out the way he plans."

Right away, we have a relationship, the uneven balance of it, and questions about what hasn’t worked out for Bernie and why Ted feels anxious about his wife, and why the rain matters, etc., etc., etc. From the first lines, you are there with Ted, seeing the rain ruin the day, feeling the pity he feels, wondering what comes next.

And from Munro’s story, Gravel:

"At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. Not a large one, hollowed out by monster machinery, just a minor pit that a farmer must have made some money from years before. In fact, the pit was shallow enough to lead you to think that there might have been some other intention for it—foundations for a house, maybe, that never made it any further."

Here, we don’t even know who’s speaking yet but we know something about them and we’re right there: country, farmland, a poor area, perhaps, where the character has had time to contemplate this simple hole in the ground. A feeling of something failed. And don’t you just know something is going to happen in regards to that pit?

We always hear advice about the opening of novels and how they must grab you from the first page, but it’s even more necessary in a short story. The writer must have a sense of urgency but yet a patience too, trusting that the reader will be able to sort things out even if she’s dropped en media res. The true masters of the form know how to condense, how to introduce, how to establish at once a place, a time, a mood. Honestly, I think writers of any form would benefit to dive into shorter forms once in while—both the reading and the writing of them. It reminds you how precious words are.


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"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