Bloodshed and Three Novellas
Stories comes in all sizes, and writers continue to speculate about the differences between novels and their more modest kin:
What is the difference between a novel and a story or a novella? Not length (though some say length is the only difference), but maturation. The novel is long because it commences green and ignorant. The novel is long because it is a process, like chewing the apple of the Tree of Knowledge: it takes the novel a while before it discovers its human nakedness. The short forms are short because they begin with completion—with knowledge of nakedness.
These remarks of Cynthia Ozick’s are suggestive and helpful, but some stories turn out longer than others for a simpler reason. The 500 pages of Lisa Alther’s first novel, Kinflicks, for example, don’t all come just from chewing the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, they’re also evidence of another process, unlike the one Ozick has in mind:
She traced the sporadic noise to the fireplace, but by the time she got over to it the noise had stopped. She tried to pinpoint the quality of the noise—it was a cross between the whirring of locusts and the cawing of several hoarse crows and the rattling of a rattle-snake. Apparently the creature was insect, bird, or reptile. Unless it was mammal or amphibian.
The noise turns out to be made by some baby chimney swifts fallen from their nest. The author’s determination to tell us what the noise is not is characteristic of this novel, which is long because much of it is inefficient. This is not prose but gab run mad, the gab of a writer anxious to stuff every narrative cranny with something, relevant or not, that might seem entertaining to someone.
Kinflicks is also too long because the life and hard times of its young heroine are meant both to pose serious questions about life in general and to give us a satiric picture of contemporary America. Ginny Babcock survives high school in small-town Tennessee around 1960; she reluctantly goes off to a high-class woman’s college just outside Boston, but drops out to follow her radical lesbian lover into urban activism and then commune life in Vermont, supported by embarrassing but handy dividend checks from her father’s munitions business. When the “earth trip” palls, she marries a moronic snowmobile dealer and settles down for a while into housewifery and motherhood, only to undergo a ruinous initiation into Oriental mysticism by a flipped-out young army deserter. These flashbacks alternate with an account of a few weeks in the present, when she returns home, her marriage ruined, to watched her mother die of a blood disease.
Ginny’s history is often very funny, but the satire is too resolutely representative to seem very disturbing. Her bungled introductions to sex, by Joe Bob Sparks, the cloddish star halfback, and Clem Cloyd, the crippled town hood in his orthopedic biker’s boots, are told with a breezy specificity familiar to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.