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 connoisseurs of sexy writing by women, without adding much to our understanding of high-school folkways. Her exposure to high culture by Miss Head, a glacial philosophy professor who plays Handel on the cello and abhors Nietzsche, relies too heavily on dialogues between Head and Heart like this:
During the opera, I developed a special sympathy for the poor dwarfs who were being whipped to shreds by the wicked Alberich. They were so small that his demands—that they mine minerals for him with their miniscule picks—were impossible to fulfill. Yet they struggled on faithfully and industriously. My heart went out to them. [Ginny springs from coal-miner stock, by the way.] I imagined that Eddie, had she been there, would have leapt onto the stage and started unionizing them. Beads of sweat were popping out on my upper lip as I strained with them in their agony.
Miss Head leaned over and whispered, “Notice the incessant recurrence of the dwarfs’ leitmotif, the ways in which its tonal structure hints at the futility of their attempts.
Nor is Edna (Eddie) Holzer, Ginny’s passionate radical lover who’s beheaded in a snowmobile accident, more than a cartoon figure. When poor Ginny suggests that their blighted communal garden might benefit from some agricultural technology Edna replies:
“Are you kidding? A power tiller? Are you out of your mind? You don’t actually want to patronize an economy that turns The People into interchangeable cogs in some vast assembly line, do you? You couldn’t possibly want to participate in a system of production that makes medical supplies with one hand and bombs with the other. I mean, that’s why we’re up here, isn’t it, to wean ourselves from that sort of hypocrisy, to become honest working-class people? Well, isn’t it?”
I’m sure that such moments are meant to sound exactly like the cartoons they are, but the pleasure of even subtle satire is usually inversely proportional to its length, and Alther’s does go on.
The restrospective episodes are told in the first person by Ginny, whose confusions never quite grow into suffering because of her own inescapable habit of flippancy, the habit that in the end saves her from destruction, as another voice observes: “Like most of her undertakings, her proposed suicide had degenerated into burlesque.” Though the flippancy never quite disappears, this other voice, which tells of her return to Tennessee and her mother’s death, is considerably soberer and better. There is dignity and wry truthfulness in Ginny’s struggle to keep the chimney swifts (if nothing else) alive and to respect the very vulnerable terms upon which her old school friends live their adult lives. The demonstration of how Ginny and her mother, in the midst of the appalling mindlessness of a real hospital, find some mutuality of interest and feeling in watching medical soap operas on TV seems to me affecting and even brilliant.
Kinflicks has as its epilogue a little Oriental tale, in which a scavenger, felled by the atmosphere of the street of the perfume sellers, is revived by a whiff of the filth he knows and relishes as life. The moral is that “if you remain attached to the few things with which you are familiar, it will only make you miserable, as the perfume did the scavenger in the street of the perfume-makers,” since death is a transition beyond everything we are accustomed to in life.
This seems confusing—the tale might just as well mean that unfamiliar things will make you sick, so you’d do better to stick to the garbage you know. And there seems to be a similar uncertainty at the center of this novel. Read one way, it says that Ginny needs to escape the ties of family, false lovers, and culture, which the book so vehemently ridicules, and that no effort at reconstituting herself—through sex, learning, politics, communality, marriage and motherhood, mystical transcendence—can quite do the job of dying, which from the opening sentence (“My family has always been into death”) has hovered over Ginny’s bright and brittle patter.
But the implied invitation to take her failed suicide as her final defeat clashes with a meaning which more thoroughly has engaged the novel’s energies. “The few things with which you are familiar,” the filth which (if you like) is living, are the source of the amusement and contempt, for the American Way and also for our easier rejections of it, which are Ginny’s (and this novel’s) most likable qualities. Lisa Alther has an honest talent for broad social comedy, and it’s the familiar, and forgivable, impulse to be “serious” that makes Kinflicks too long, too much more than the rude portrait of failed contemporary desires and enthusiasms it was in its power to be.
Dream Children, Gail Godwin’s first collection of stories, may disappoint or even dismay readers who admired The Odd Woman. My own admiration for that novel was a little uneasy; though Godwin can be eloquent and witty, her effects depend mainly on amassing incidents and thoughts, and her work can be ponderous and sentimental. In The Odd Woman the accumulation adds up, finally, even though it is not a continuously active or engaging book.
The stories, I’m afraid, expose further deficiencies that aren’t evident in the longer and denser novel. A number of them seem exercises in fantasy-making which ought not to be memorialized in hard covers—a rather coy rehearsing of Swift’s relations with Vanessa, Varina, and Stella (“Why Does a Great Man Love?”), a mawkish account of a woman’s gradual withdrawal from her affectionate husband and son, whom she rewards with a magnificent outburst of cooking, laundry, and “creative writing” before death claims her (“A Sorrowful Woman”). Godwin writes semi-surreal tales of women leaving home to observe their own life from an apartment across the street (“Nobody’s Home”), being abandoned temporarily or permanently by their lovers (“Death in Puerto Vallarta,” “My Lover, His Summer Vacation”), becoming a more than willing object of gang-rape in an airport VIP lounge (“Layover”). Some themes recur in these stories—dead children and lost lovers, female gigantism, sexual attraction to and damage from older men, writers constructing fictions out of life or life out of fiction or dreams—but Godwin’s use of the short story form doesn’t succeed in giving them clear meaning.
Godwin can be very good—and sometimes very funny—when she attaches her characters’ feelings to the conditions of their culture:
“I have to stop by the damn supermarket,” Gretchen’s mother said, “and you know, no matter what I fix he won’t be satisfied.” Her mother’s library books were digging into Gretchen’s rear so she restacked them, examining the titles: SF Nebula awards, a novel called Other Orbits with a dust jacket from one of Hieronymus Bosch’s more gruesome panels, and a book on the medieval mind…. She began to read. “You’re going to ruin your eyes,” her grandmother said through the rear-view mirror. Gretchen thought of Borges and Joyce and Homer and Milton and wished she could fall in love with a really good man. [“Some Side Effects of Time Travel”]
When she confines herself to relatively conventional modes, where inner feeling and outer circumstance each have their rights preserved, she does quite well, as in “False Lights,” a brief exchange of letters between a writer’s first and second wives, with very different ideas about what they do or don’t have in common. In “An Intermediate Stop,” a young British clergyman, author of a bestseller about his own mystical experience of God, finds a richer kind of beatitude while lecturing at a small women’s college in the American South.
The first and last stories in the book show rather neatly the limitations of this writer. Both concern apparently secure women living in the country north of New York City, one with a TV-producer husband, and the other with a playwright lover; but from these similar cases very different stories emerge. The first, “Dream Children,” explores the contradiction between the apparent contentment and serenity of its heroine and her habit of riding her horse much too recklessly, as if “she has nothing to fear anymore.” We gradually learn that she has immersed herself in the literature of psychic phenomena, that she’s been unable to have sex since losing a child in an obstetrical disaster, that she is visited nightly by the figure of a small boy the same age her own son would have been, a boy who, she decides, is quite real, lives in Florida, and comes to her in a sleepwalking dream of his own like the ones she remembers having as a child.
Their relationship hinges, as we eventually learn, upon a terrible moment when, awakening in the hospital, she was given “her son” to nurse and joyfully assumed that her memory of losing the baby was only a dream; a careless nurse had erred, and the other child, the one she now sees in her house, had to be forcibly taken from her. Now, no longer concerned about distinctions between dream and fact, she lives with the strange happiness that has released her from her tragic history.
“Dream Children” is better than summary makes it sound, but it remains a little too close in tone and intensity to the emotional conventions of a familiar kind of commercial women’s fiction to earn its professions of seriousness. I much prefer “Notes for a Story,” which, though done mostly in outline, mixes emotional intensity with intelligent ironic control. Nora, a modestly successful writer, is visited in Woodstock by her childhood friend Catherine, who in their younger days seemed to both of them the more promising, if only because her family was better off and things seemed to come easier to her. Now Catherine, married and divorced early, is an undistinguished college teacher who sleeps with her students, smokes pot, and drinks too much, and is vaguely interested in Yoga; Nora, despite her own success, is still jealous, and has nightmares of finding a story by Catherine in Mademoiselle.
The visit is a disaster. On the first night Catherine almost sets off some three-way sex with Nora and her lover Rudy, high on their first pot, and the next night she drunkenly smashes all the crockery, and Nora, furious, almost kills her. The ending is inconclusive but credibly mixes remorse with an exhilarating acceptance of the hostility both women have concealed for so long. This incident, in effect the climax of a longer story which hasn’t fully been written and suggesting a novel’s greater amplitude, reminds us that Gail Godwin is a very considerable writer indeed.
If Godwin’s stories tend to force large intentions into a form that can’t adequately articulate them, Raymond Carver’s stories are marvels of that “completion”—the foreknowledge of nakedness—of which Cynthia Ozick speaks. Carver’s stories are very short and naked, proving that it’s usually better to say too little than a little too much, and also that endings matter more than beginnings.
His stories in fact begin flatly, with no effort to engage the reader in anything more than plain statements about perfectly plain lives:
Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. [“Neighbors”]
The call had come an hour ago, when they were eating. [“Sixty Acres”]
Carl got off work at three. [“What’s In Alaska?”]
The telephone rang while he was running the vacuum cleaner. [“Put Yourself in My Shoes”]
This is a world whose people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers, where a good time consists of smoking pot with the neighbors, with a little cream soda and M&M’s on the side. Carver’s characters are waitresses, mechanics, postmen, high school teachers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen. They live in the Pacific Northwest, not for them a still unspoiled scenic wonderland but a place where making a living is as hard, and the texture of life as drab, for those without money, as anywhere else.
Carver makes a great deal of his plain beginnings. The stories are domestic, familial, often involving a married couple, but they aren’t really stories of domestic or marital “difficulty.” His couples get along pretty well, they accommodate themselves. Their problems come when their marginal lives are intruded upon by mystery, a sense of something larger and more elemental than they’re used to feeling, possibilities that either frighten them or elude their intellectual categories. The stories’ endings, although less plain than their openings, are still understated:
They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.
Just as he started to turn off the lamp, he thought he saw something in the hall. He kept staring and thought he saw it again, a pair of small eyes. His heart turned. He blinked and kept staring. He leaned over to look for something to throw. He picked up one of his shoes. He sat up straight and held the shoe with both hands. He heard her snoring and set his teeth. He waited. He waited for it to move once more, to make the slightest noise.
He did not answer. Her voice seemed to come to him from a great distance. He kept driving. Snow rushed at the windshield. He was silent and watched the road. He was at the very end of a story.
Such intimations of what may lie beyond the edges of ordinary consciousness usually take the form of “natural” images—here wind, dangerous animals, snow. The writer refuses to condescend to his characters by invoking conceptions they couldn’t have themselves; and such images really do indicate mystery, being as unfathomable to sophisticated readers as they are to the people in the stories.
Carver’s remarkable talent for short fiction proves itself in the movement of his stories from beginning to end and not in their enigmatic outcomes. The story “Neighbors” will do as an example. A couple—he a bookkeeper, she a secretary—agrees to look after the apartment across the hall for vacationing friends whom they envy: “The Stones were always going out for dinner, or entertaining at home, or traveling about the country somewhere in connection with Jim’s work.” In the course of watering the plants and feeding the cat, both Bill and Arlene Miller begin, separately at first, to live the Stones’ imagined better lives, nibbling their food and drinking their scotch, pinching their cigarettes, using their bathroom, trying on their clothes, looking at themselves in their mirrors. Each finds this strangely stimulating, and their sex life prospers, though neither can find anything much to say about it all:
“It’s funny,” she said. “You know—to go in someone’s place like that.”
He nodded, took her hand from the knob, and guided her toward their own door. He let them into their apartment.
“It is funny,” he said.
And then she said, “Maybe they won’t come back,” and was at once astonished at her words.
“It could happen,” he said. “Anything could happen.”
“Or maybe they’ll come back and…” but she did not finish.
In their excitement about these unspeakable possibilities, they lock their only key to the place inside it, and the story ends with them clinging together in a mutual recognition that something immense, if also shameful, has been lost, though neither of them quite knows what it is.
Other writers might invite us to pity the Millers—how little they need to arouse their diminished selves, but Carver does not pity them. His tight, laconic stories illuminate a kind of life that sophisticated fiction seldom deals with without condescension or sentimentality.
Cynthia Ozick is never in danger of saying too little as a writer. She confesses to a fondness for the novella, and there’s no doubt that she needs space for her fiction, which is episodic, anecdotal, informed by a sensibility that feeds on words but also on anxieties about words, doubts (as she explains in a personal and chatty preface) about the rightness of telling stories at all, especially if the writer is Jewish.
When these anxieties are in the foreground, as they are in “Usurpation,” subtitled “Other People’s Stories,” I have my doubts about her work. A Jewish woman writer, unable to write a story about magical silver crowns because Bernard Malamud has already written one like it, encounters an unpleasant but ambitious young student writer who hustles her into reading an unpublished story of his own. His story is terrible, but its subject—a young writer being advised by an eminent older one to overcome his envy—so intrigues her that she begins to tell it herself, but with improvements and amplifications. In her version, the old writer tricks the younger one into putting on a magical silver crown which makes him instantly successful and famous, as well as old and diseased. Unable to remove his crown, he soon dies.
Having told her story, the woman writer seeks out the student whose story she’s usurped and Malamudized, so to speak. She finds him in an abandoned tenement in Brooklyn, where she meets his cousin, the wife of a self-styled rabbi who’s in jail for selling silver crowns under false pretenses, as in Malamud’s story. She puts on one of the crowns, and then reads the rabbi’s ill-written but powerfully embittered manuscript about an indifferent God’s refusal to work miracles on behalf of his people, such as stopping the Holocaust.
Even this inadequate summary—I’ve had to leave out the ghost of Tchernikhovsky and a good deal more—would have been impossible for me without the aid of Ozick’s preface, in which she explains this parable about the “anxiety of influence.” She says it expresses the fear she feels, as a Jewish writer working in a language not of her own people, that art is a magical act which, though sanctioned by pagan and Christian traditions, is a blasphemy against the God of Israel, who has forbidden idolatry and magic:
“Usurpation” is about the dread of Moloch, the dread of lyrical faith, the dread of metaphysics, the dread of “theology,” the dread of fantasy and fancy, of god and Muse; above all the dread of idols; the dread of the magic that kills. The dread of imagination.
Even a skeptical gentile can find this dread impressive. And Ozick’s anxiety about being a writer while writing a story about that anxiety is fascinating. But the unnamed critic whom Ozick mildly rebukes was not far from the mark in charging her story with mystification. Certainly her gloss on “Usurpation” is more coherent and moving than the story itself.
The other stories in Bloodshed seemed to me much better than this one. “An Education,” about a guileless young archaeologist being morally cannibalized by a pretentious pair of intellectual frauds, is more a product of ironic sophistication than of human understanding, but it is full of splendidly malicious jokes (“Rosalie was one of those serious blue-eyed fat girls, very short-fingered, who seem to have arrived out of their mothers’ wombs with ten years’ experience at social work”). “Bloodshed,” about a moment of bitter conflict between a Hassidic rabbi and a skeptical outsider who turns out to be carrying a gun, is, like “Usurpation,” hard for a goy to make out, but it proceeds with intensity and economy.
The best thing here is the marvelous novella “A Mercenary,” a tale of impersonations and identity changes set in the world of international diplomacy. Stanislav Lushinski, a Polish Jew who represents a tiny new African state at the United Nations, is a popular TV talk-show personality, but never goes without a briefcase full of false passports in case a quick getaway is called for. He is a richer figure than most of Ozick’s other characters, less constrained by some governing idea. His troubled assistant, Morris Ngambe, an Oxford man who remembers participating in the ritual eating of his mother by all her loving kin, is simpler but equally engaging in his efforts to cope with the violence of life in primitive places (he’s been snubbed by Puerto Ricans, mugged by blacks, and bitten by a chow dog who perhaps represents the Oriental component of this dangerous melting pot)—“ ‘New York is just what they say of it—a wilderness, a jungle.’ ”
Morris is bemused by Lushinski’s complete and sincere assimilation into his own Africa while he, Morris, must uneasily remain in “a city of Jews” which ought to be but isn’t the place for a Lushinski; and it is Morris who comes closest to uttering the story’s hidden motto:
It may be that every man at length becomes what he wishes to victimize.
It may be that every man needs to impersonate what he first must kill.
Lushinski, at home again in the Africa he loves differently but not less well than its “natives” do, can dismiss Morris’s speculations as “a lumpy parroting of Reading Gaol” with perhaps some Fanon or Genet thrown in: “Like everyone the British had once blessed with Empire, Morris was a Victorian. He was a gentleman. He believed in civilizing influences; even more in civility. He was besotted by style. If he thought of knives, it was for buttering scones.” He himself remembers other uses of knives, fighting for survival in the forests of occupied Poland whose horrors he has been trying to put behind him all his life, and he resents the charge that he’s an impersonator, a fake, a Jew after all.
But this splendid serio-comic tale finally brings both Lushinski the mercenary and Morris the imperialist together in a single focus, showing the ironies and the pathos of assimilation as a common ground between their very unlike histories. The “magic” which Cynthia Ozick elsewhere fears works wonderfully in this nearly perfect long short story which, she tells us, was first conceived as a novel. It shows that, after all, a story told in the right way is just long enough, whatever its size.
April 1, 1976