Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Granta Books of Something-Something... Or, a whole bunch of stories Richard Ford likes.

I just pounded through the GRANTA BOOK OF THE AMERICAN LONG STORY and the GRANTA BOOK OF THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY. I capitalize them, because they are very official looking books, very heavy, and very much the sort of books whose titles can only be spoken in an "announcer" voice. Reading them both back-to-back was like taking a crash course in American literary fiction. As I'm working on some less-speculative stuff right now, it seemed ideal.

Sometimes anthologies come along that say far more about the editor than they do about any individual piece or idea inside the stories. Almost all the time, in fact. In this case, Richard Ford seems to have pulled together a bunch of stories that he likes. The only thing they seem to have in common, side-by-side, is that they are vageuly American in nature, and Richard Ford likes them.

What I thought was most interesting in the short story anthology was Ford's selection of a short story version of the "Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan. I did not know that there was a short story version of this piece, in any form. I thought it was just a novel that I read in high school, liked quite a lot, and a sappy movie I did not like quite a lot. In short story form, the Joy Luck Club is too much story for its space. It does not have the precision of a well-executed short story, where not a word is wasted and everything that exists in the story is all that should exist of the story.

I wish Richard Ford had excluded this piece, and any other story that had been extended into a full novel.

If a short story is an independent art form, and I think it is, there must be a line where something hasn't just reached the end of a scene, but also the end of an idea. Take, as a comparison, Shirley Jackson's classic "The Lottery", also included - and, one of the classic stories of American letters. The end of Jackson's story is also the end of the idea. There is that mystery as the narrative builds to a head as these small-town folks - decent folks - go through their ritual and the reader does not know what the purpose of the rocks, or of the titular lottery is, and the tension building to a point as the strange ritual plays out ends at the stoning. This story is exactly the length it should be to make the idea come to life. Any longer, and it is very likely that something silly, and corny would result similar to the B-Movie "Wicker Man".

In the short story collection everything is hit or miss, like a shotgun aiming at a chair where the American short story might be sitting. The shot pellets hit all over the wall, maybe hitting bone, maybe not. If the true measure of the American Short Story is actually hit or not cannot be proven. Without a clear definition of what an American short story is - i.e. what makes a story "American" or what makes a story "short" - all we get is Richard Ford showing us a bunch of stories he likes. He intentionally, in his introduction, chose the loosest definition he could for both "American" and "short". What's left are only stories - too long, or too short, or to foreign, or not foreign enough, or too quirky, or not quirky enough.

Just a bunch of stories, like sitting on a subway and trying to eavesdrop every conversation at once. And, I guess that's the best way to do it. Take GRANTA off the title, though, and call it "Richard Ford Likes These Basically American Stories", and for gosh sake make it look less official.

The Long Story one was more interesting, to me. There was undercurrents of class struggles, race relations, and the constant questioning of the transitional nature of our young nation's identity. I think, if only because there are fewer novellas to choose from, there was opportunity for this more-focused anthology.

In Ford's introduction, he talks about the mystery of the elusive novella, and the manner in which such things are probably European. He ignores, completely, the mysterious stuff that happens behind the scenes to make books bound, printed objects that consumers buy. The cost of a publisher printing a 90 page book is about the same as printing a 300 page book, and, ergo, costs the consumer about the same to buy. When faced with a choice between a fifteen dollar book of quality at 300 pages versus a 90 page book of exactly the same cost, most American readers, I suspect, will favor the heavier book, convinced that is of more value than a 90 page book. I wonder if his "European" statement is a tweak to the American trait of seeing volume as value, whereas a European reader - presumably - favors the 90 page book, assuming it to be of higher value per word, as it holds it's own against the 300 page book in the eyes of the editor. I am reminded of my own, personal motto for pastry-cases: the plainest-looking thing is likely the tastiest because it holds its own against the stuff with frosting and sprinkles.
That said, the stories themselves are a grab bag of things that could stand alone, or couldn't. "June Recital" is a beautiful, powerful piece that shows how an outsider is quietly destroyed by a Southern community despite her prominent presence as a piano teacher, even as it reveals the era in which it is written by its tawdry and salacious treatment of African-Americans. This story could easily stand alone. Not so "The Making of an Ashenden", where a twit wanders the world looking for himself only to be seduced by a bear.
Ernest J. Gaines' piece of a decisive moment in a lower-class family's life seems tacked on to a book that is otherwise all about the middle-class' aspirations of grandeur. There are country clubs, piano lessons, The wealthy get their comeuppance, and the upper middle class aspire to wealth. In "Goodbye, Columbus", hard-working Jewish families play tennis in country clubs, and a young librarian seduces their daughter while pondering the rise to wealth the family experienced employing African-American workers as if the employees were the next wave of Jews, living in the same neighborhoods and experiencing similar prejudice as the Jews had experienced in the past. The race relations comes to a head in Joyce Carol Oates' powerful contribution, describing an interracial relationship before such a thing was commonplace.
All this aside, the form of the novella described by Ford in the introduction - European, experimental - seemed to reach a nadir in "The Making of an Ashenden". It is hard to imagine maintaining any sort of engaging narrative with the twit narrator for even a moment longer than present in the story. When the bear arrives, the initial reaction is relief that this fellow is finally about to get eaten. It is equally difficult to conceive of a continuation of the sort of events that end the story - wherein a female bear rapes the narrator for approximately twenty pages in immense, poetic detail, and the narrator likes it. This novella is the perfect example of what a novella could be. On the one hand, it is long enough that the narrator really starts to be annoying and despicable. On the other hand, the moment the absurdist elements take hold of the story to a point of genuine disgust, the novella ends. It is long enough, but not too long.
Now, I wonder how to define novellas, with this in mind. Personally, I'd hate to take a story that made me want to regurgitate as a canon-defining boundary of the novella form. So, instead of thinking of the form as a binary categorical - something is, or is not - I prefer to think of the form as a large pile of books. Large numbers of work seem to clump together at a certain range - experimental, absurdist, continental - but, on the whole, there exists no boundary. War & Peace - as a novella - may be so far away from the clump of titles that seem to define the form as to suggest it could not be a novella, but it still exists among the works that could merit that definition. Thus, with fuzzy boundaries, we can maintain a lively discussion not about what is not a novella - for instance War & Peace - but, instead, about what is a novella - works longer than a novelette, but shorter than a novel. The fuzzy boundaries of novellete and novel, as well, could be maneuvered around via new definitions and evolving publishing practices to include such things as "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams or "The Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan.
Regardless, the real difficulty of attempting to define an artistic form is the introduction of boundaries inherent in the act of defining. By creating an anthology dedicated to one form - which, as the narrator states, no one has managed to clearly define - the end result is a grab-bag of fictions, some stronger than others, that seem to reflect the editor's taste more than any clearly-defined boundary line of either nationality or form. It was better, and tighter than the prior anthology - and between the two, I'd tell you to take this one home from the library - but it was still evident that this was a bunch of stories Richard Ford likes.

His taste is pretty good, on the whole, and interesting enough to read through once. It felt like refreshing my memory of all those English classes I had to take in college, that were trying to establish a clear sense of American literary identity, and all of them failing - failing - failing...

A living creature cannot be dissected while it is still alive. Rome and Greece and Mesopotamia can be defined, but not yet us. I guess, though, when the day comes for aliens to sift through our bones, these are just the sort of anthologies their scholars will use to talk about us glorious, thoughtful apes, with a mysterious subconscious dream-state chasing us all through our days.

Anyway, here's the link:

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