We Are Not Alone
Five recent short story collections give us glimpses into the lives of characters very much like ourselves.
Thursday, September 21, 2000
Try this experiment: Go to your local post office, or to a nice spot on the coast where people tend to gather, or perhaps your favorite produce stand on the outskirts of town. Then watch the people around you. You''ll probably notice someone who reminds you of someone you know, or whose mood--joy, boredom or rage--strikes some particular chord in you. Now imagine what they did that morning, why they''re in the mood they''re in, what their deepest longings might be, who they love, and why.
Congratulations. You''ve just started writing a short story.
Short stories, at their best, give us glimpses into the lives of characters very much like ourselves. Unlike novels, which usually depend on the elaborate architectures of plot, a short story can be no more than a wisp of a moment in the life of a character or two. A short story collection can be like a village, a gathering of souls knit together by the author''s imagination and often by something else too, such as region, ethnicity or circumstance. Reading several recent short story collections can be compared to visiting communities near and far, chatting with the locals, discovering similarities and differences and perhaps seeing one''s own hometown with changed eyes.
In "Lobster Night," the final story in The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (Harper Collins, $27.50), a woman remarks that "there''s you, and there''s everybody else." Nearly all of Banks'' stories feature people trying to bridge that fearful gap between their own solitude and the rest of the world. Few achieve truly satisfying intimacy, yet there is a partial, imperfect grace to the lives Banks depicts that approaches redemption: An angel hovers on the roof, not far yet just out of reach. Banks mostly writes about people living hardscrabble lives in the frozen isolation of New Hampshire, pulled down by alcoholism, the weight of past relationships, or simply their own lives. In his introduction he describes a good story as a prayer, but a prayer to whom? Perhaps we pray not to angels but to each other. Reading this strong collection drawn from more than 30 years of expert storytelling, one encounters interlocked communities of men and women beaten down by the world, for whom a gesture of kindness is often enough to help them survive another day.
A different kind of isolation, and thus a different form of community, shapes What She Left Me (Middlebury College Press, $22.95), a first collection of beautifully crafted stories by prize-winning author Judy Doenges. Most of Doenges'' stories describe the struggles experienced by many lesbians and gay men, for whom so often "everything [has] to be hidden, especially the fact that you wanted one another in the first place." The difficult relationship a lesbian may have with her mother touches several of these stories, particularly "The Whole Numbers of Families," in which the narrator''s mother dismisses her daughter''s live-in girlfriend. "I don''t think you know a thing about what ties people together," she exclaims. "You''re just flailing around." Yet in "God of Gods," the last story in the collection, Doenges points the way to the possibility of those ties, to what can make them endure.
Joy is a quality sorely lacking in another recent first book, Steven Varni''s The Inland Sea (William Morrow, $22.00). Varni grew up the son of Italian-American immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley, and his coming-of-age stories, which together fashion a kind of novel, bear many similarities to his own background. Indeed, the purpose of this book seems to have been a desire to get back at parents and siblings for all the "cramped close places" of family life he was forced to endure. Unfortunately Varni misses the opportunity to depict the unique populations of a changing Central Valley, which he scorns as a "sad gray landscape." In the story "Snow" the narrator breaks up with a college girlfriend, not wanting to be "drawn into some sad personal history of hers, with its own foolish desires and stupid injuries." Readers who plod on to the end of this disappointing book may find themselves harboring similar thoughts about its author.
In the title story of Gish Jen''s warmly humorous and empathetic Who''s Irish? (Vintage, $12.00), an older Chinese-American woman remarks crabbily, "We do not have this word in Chinese, supportive." And yet throughout this marvelous collection characters, mostly Chinese-Americans of both sexes and all ages, do support one another. These men and women often must "learn painful things," yet they are never alone in their efforts. "In the American Society" tells the story of a family who stumbles more than once on the path to social integration and family harmony, but who in the end decide that it is better to struggle together than apart. What interests Jen most are the bridges built between the divides of geography and intimate attachment.
Of course, what for one group may constitute a bridge, the thread of connection, may appear to another as yet one more impenetrable barrier in a world that is full of them. Jhumpa Lahiri''s astonishing debut collection of short fiction, Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin, $23.00), shows in story after story how porous and fragile these barriers really are. Interpreter of Maladies won this year''s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it is truly a book for our times. These are stories of yearning, of people longing for community, across the boundaries of country, culture, sex, age. Lahiri''s stories largely focus on Indian immigrants to America, their children, parents and friends, yet as with all great literature her tales transcend the specificity of time and place and thus speak to us all. In "Sexy" a young Midwestern white woman who finds herself having an affair with an Indian-American tries to write her name in a new language and makes a discovery: "It was a scribble to her, but somewhere in the world, she realized with a shock, it meant something." In the masterful final story, "The Third and Final Continent," which beautifully traces the arrival and first impressions of a young Indian who has come to work at MIT, Lahiri delicately evokes all the extraordinariness of an ordinary life. This is fiction that makes each of our lives seem somehow touched by grace.
Various communities--from Chinese and Silician fishermen to Methodists in Pacific Grove, from the artists and writers of Carmel and Big Sur to migrating computer-savvy dot-commers of Silicon Valley--have historically shaped the Monterey Peninsula and continue to do so. It is easy, and perhaps dangerous, to think of these groups as unified blocks, undistinguished groups of people one may greet with open arms or closed gates, depending on one''s disposition. These collections of short stories offer many perspectives on how to understand community, but one idea sticks out: We are all outsiders in one way or another. Consumer culture forever tempts us with the dream of the Inner Circle, the illusion of belonging, but most of us, by virtue of some factor--weight, looks, skin color, sex, sexuality, age, income, education, nationality, region, neighborhood, marital status, religion or lack of one--find ourselves at some moment of the day on the outside looking in. These stories may offer a certain welcome message for those of us still seeking that elusive quality of community: No one is alone.