Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Short stories

In a recent e-mail exchange, a friend who occasionally teaches writing asked me if I had any recommendations of great short stories that he might add to his syllabus. Though I have certain favorites--Flannery O'Connor, Kafka, and J. F. Powers, for example--my general preference for the capacious strangeness of the novel makes me a relatively poor resource when it comes to the short story. Especially when set against my friend's classroom-honed knowledge of the form, I figured initially that I didn't have anything to contribute.

Then in quick succession, I thought of three stories . . . one of which, despite its perfection, I can't really recommend for a writing teacher, while the other two aren't actually stories. Clearly I was on to something!

I've written about the first story already: it's "Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots," from Georgi Gospodinov's And Other Stories (2007). Running to a mere three pages, it's spare and starkly emotional, shot through with loss and the cruelties of fate--yet it shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a writing class. A bare-bones summary, draining the story of its careful language and unexpected perception, will I think make clear the reason: A man and a woman meet in an airport for a couple of hours, during which time they realize that they're soulmates who simply never found each other until that moment, a moment that must inevitably end forever when the woman gets on her plane. See what I mean? My own history as a fiction writing student tells me you're likely to get plenty of that sort of crap without in any way encouraging it. Read and marvel at the story, but please keep it far from any syllabus.

My second suggestion I've also written about recently: it comes from pages 222-24 of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (2007), an account by Joaquin Font of a day's thoughts as he sits in El Reposo Mental Health Clinic in Mexico City. Hypnotic and repetitive, larded with cryptic references, it barely delivers any information to help the reader place Font or the woman whose loss he's lamenting, yet in its obsessive tying of a tragic memory to the creeping progress of the slow seconds of painful thought, it achieves an undeniable power. Is it a short story? Not really, being an important part of a sprawling, 650-page novel--but I could imagine it serving as a bracing example of the possibilities of the form at its most compact.

Compared to my final example, the preceding one might as well be "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," for this last one is not in any conceivable way a short story. And yet . . . over the weekend, discussing PJ Harvey's best album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), with rocketlass and our friend Carrie, I began to describe "You Said Something," the album's most memorable song (excepting perhaps the four minutes of towering lust that are "This Is Love") . . . and I soon realized that the account I was giving of the song was far more detailed than any straightforward reading of the lyrics would allow. Yet I felt that I was only drawing out what was already there, unsaid, perhaps, but deeply felt. Let's see what you think.

I'll respect Harvey's copyright enough to point you to this site rather than reprinting the full lyrics here; it's probably best if you read them before you continue reading this. The song is only twenty-six lines long, seven of which, repeated, form what there is of a chorus, so the simple summary is easy: the singer finds herself on a rooftop in Brooklyn at one in the morning with a friend, looking out over Manhattan. As one does on a rooftop at night, they lean out and take in the view, "acting like lovers"; later (or perhaps another night) they take his car to Manhattan, where they do the same. And somewhere in there, the singer tells us, her companion says something "that I've never forgotten."

Pretty simple, right? But, oh, how much is conveyed by those few facts, by the tone and mood they set, by the minimal details on offer! The setting--late-night Manhattan viewed across the East River--is inherently romantic, but it's not until we get to the line "acting like lovers" that we're sure what's going on: these two are friends . . . but there has always been the tense awareness that more might be possible, and this wee-hours climb has ratcheted up that tension considerably. Even as they both sense what's going on they're leaning against the railings, trying to pretend all is as usual--yet the singer finds herself holding her breath, waiting--and we can't help but share her shudder of anticipation and guilty excitement. It's possible that they've both got other commitments, of which parts of their brains are trying to remind them, and yet here they are, together, drawn inextricably into one another's orbit.

Then the song moves on: they journey to Manhattan, and the singer tells herself, "I'm doing nothing wrong / riding in your car"--the sort of attempt at denial only necessary when patently untrue, a self-deception guaranteed to fool no one, least of all oneself. They take the elevator to the eighth floor, singing all the way to the radio they've just left behind in the car, the singing a nervous yet companionable way to avoid the very real risks posed by speech at that moment, risks topped only by those of the physical proximity that they can do nothing about. On the rooftop again, alone together . . . he says something.

And there the song ends, defying our expectations and in the process nearing the sublime. In her chorus, the singer has told us again and again about her companion's statement, which is "really important" and which she's "never forgotten"; given its place in the structure of the song, we assume we'll learn what he said--yet by denying us that satisfaction, Harvey both highlights the spareness of her story and gives it an undeniable verisimilitude. It takes a rigor that's beyond me to believe that this isn't an account of a real incident in her life; she's willing to turn it into a song, yet unwilling to sully the essence of that moment by sharing--and thus betraying--the private words of her friend. What we get instead is the mood and the feel of an encounter, the frisson generated by the lies we tell ourselves when we're considering doing something we know is wrong. Sung over a churning 6/8 beat, led by a guitar figure that rises, then falls in an embroidered refraction of itself, the lyrics convey that unforgettable feeling of surrendering--almost willfully--one's moorings to what one tells oneself is an inexorable pull.

Perhaps it's the Nick Jenkins in me overpowering whatever tiny bit of Lord Byron I also embody, but I tend to think that what her companion said stopped things where they stood, that this friendship stayed just that. The alternate reading is less convincing: the ensuing events surely would overwhelm that moment of speech, make it ultimately forgettable. But part of what's glorious about this song is that very ambiguity: Harvey offers us just enough to make us wonder, without closing off the wide range of possibilities.

So no, "You Said Something" is not a short story--but it carries many of the glories of the form, elliptical yet forceful, evocative rather than explicit, suggestive and stark. If one of the characteristics of art is that it opens rather than closes interpretation, leads to questions rather than offers answers, then "You Said Something" certainly qualifies.

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