A Man and Two Women
The Reservoir and Snowman Snowman
Are short stories the embryos of unwritten novels, or are they things in themselves? The great ones—and the greatest are surely Chekhov’s—seem to be saying all that need be said; one does not feel that a skeleton is going around in an overcoat, having forgotten to put on its suit of flesh beforehand; nor, on the other hand, that a lone knee is wandering through the world, foully separated from the parent body. When Chekhov cut off a slice of life, everybody knew where it came from. He wrote about a society, fatigued, disillusioned, and in decline, but still maintaining a deliquescent shape, which provided a widely understood reference system. More than the novel, the short story depended on that system, having so much less scope for creating a new one of its own.
Now that it’s gone, the short story (so handily small-scale and apparently effortless—too good a form to abandon) has cast about for other sources, and opted enthusiastically for the autonomous world of childhood. Reading at random in current short fiction, one comes to shudder at the idea of people being born at all lest they survive to write about their first fifteen years, that inexhaustible reservoir from which so many buckets of the elixir of meaning, pathos, poetry—why, life itself—have been drawn up. Along with narcissism goes another symptom of the form’s lack of motive or vitality: an obsession with brand-naming, itemizing, labeling (think of all the Band-Aids, Thermos jugs, Noblot Desk Pens, Jack Daniels Black Label, Natural Tangee—it puts one in mind of Pop Art), as if these pegs and threads could trap the Gulliver of life. Meantime, alienation itself has become a subject, a self-consuming one, and the more at odds with the center, the apter the writer. How many have been colonials, sexual aberrants, spokesmen of the defeated South, impoverished grandchildren of the affluent And women—the original outsiders.
Here, in any case, we have a trio of short story collections, each written by a woman born in the 1920’s at some distance from the civilized center. Doris Lessing grew up in Rhodesia, was a Communist until Hungary, has lived in London for some years, and has written several books. Janet Frame, a little younger, comes from New Zealand, now lives in London, has suffered long bouts of mental illness which she made the subject of an admired novel. Cecil Dawkins is an American Southerner (Alabama), has studied and taught short story writing, and this is her first published book. They are all females of a generation, all obliquely placed, all interesting writers, though their stories have little in common.
Doris Lessing’s talents are not best suited to the short story. She is an intelligent woman, with public as well as private sources, and nothing she writes is uninstructive. But at best these stories are sketches for novels, chapters from unwritten novels, fictionalized case histories, jottings that might be put to some …