Monday, April 09, 2007

Long Stories or Short Novels

Nathan Englander, the author of the eclectic and Jewish-themed short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, finally has a new book after an eight-year hiatus. Upon hearing this news from my rep a few months ago, I was initially very excited to get more from this wonderful short story writer. However, my elation soon turned to a groan when the rep uttered the word "novel" to describe Engander's The Ministry of Special Cases. Novel?!

Why a novel? Is the temptation of money too strong to resist for short story writers? The novel is seen as the pre-eminent fiction form by the buying public. Probably more than half the people that I recommend short story collections to reject them out of hand because they don't like the form. But writers should have a healthier appreciation for the short story. Raymond Carver didn't succumb to the novel's allure. Alice Munro had her dalliance with the novel when she published The Lives of Girls and Women in 1971, but since then it has been all stories. Munro, Carver -- that's nice company to join, if you can manage it.

Reading a novel by a gifted short story writer is like watching Michael Jordan play baseball. There were moments when Jordan's pure athleticism overwhelmed all the deficiencies in his swing and his defense. But those isolated performances only made it more painful that he wasn't playing basketball, where his speed and his jumping ability would actually make a difference. For story writers, their quickly drawn characters, elegance of language and the taut emotional scenes are still there, but these strengths are often lost in the cacophony of verbiage that comes with an extra 200 pages.

At least Jordan's baseball career took place in the minor leagues rather than in the glare of the Major League spotlight. Unfortunately for many writers, there isn't a publishing minor league where they can try their hand at the novel. In fact, the novel debuts of story wonder-kids are usually obscenely hyped and nearly always disappointing. How can they not be? I attended a writing conference about ten years ago and became close to one of the teachers. She was working on her second collection of stories after her first novel had flopped. I asked her why she wrote the novel when she was so obviously devoted to writing stories. "When the publisher read my stories, they asked my agent if I had a novel too. I said, 'Yes, yes, a novel -- of course I have one. I'm just finishing it up.' I would have said anything to make sure I got the deal. I ended up writing most of a novel in a few months."

Thankfully, Englander was not in that predicament. In last Sunday's The New York Times Magazine he was asked about the eight-year gap between books. I loved his answer: "A novel is not a long short story, and I had to learn how to write one. It was so important to me that my novel not feel like, 'Oh, look at these linked stories that don't crumble when you lay them side by side.'"

His response reminded me of my co-worker's reaction to Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, The Namesake. She felt, and I agreed, that it would have been better if it had been broken up into stories. Perhaps a few chapters could have been reworked into excellent stories, perhaps a few could have been left out. Frankly, I don't think there has been a more disappointing novel in the past 10 years. Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies is a brilliant, vibrant collection of short stories that announced the arrival of a singular voice in fiction. An event that happens maybe three times a decade. The Namesake is a good novel, but there are hundreds, probably thousands, of writers out there that can write good novels. There's only one Jhumpa Lahiri. I'm just wondering where she is now. Probably counting the money that's coming her way from the film adaptation of her novel.

Englander's novel, however, is much more than a patched-up story collection. It is an engaging tale set during Argentina's Dirty War in the mid-1970s. During the Dirty War, the government "disappeared" a huge number of people. The lead character is Kaddish, named for the Jewish prayer of mourning, who makes his living by chiseling the names off of grave stones in the disreputable section of the Jewish cemetery. It seems that some respectable citizens want their pimp, whore and thug ancestors to simply disappear before the government figures out the relation.

Englander does a superb job in playing with the theme of identity. It's not enough for the government to kidnap a young man and deny that they have him. They try to erase his very existence. And in an effort to protect everyone that Kaddish's disappeared son ever knew, Kaddish ends up aiding in the attempt to rewrite history by destroying all of his son's personal mementos. The pain and disorientation that this disappearance brings to Kaddish and his wife, along with the strain it puts on their relationship, is vividly, and sometimes comedically, portrayed.

Englander has made a better transition to novels than Lahiri, but he still falls into some traps that would never snare him in his short stories. There are parts of the novel where the action moves too quickly. The pacing seems a bit off. I refer to it as the "this happens, then this happens and then this happens," sequence of many contemporary novels. Luckily, about halfway through the book, Englander starts to seem much more comfortable with the form, his characters and plot falling into place. I became truly riveted by Kaddish and his plight during the final chapters.

I was relieved to find that despite all of the disappearing in the novel, and the erasing of identities, Englander himself did not disappear from the literary map by moving over to the novel format, but instead kept his writer's identity strong. Still, I can't help but ask the question that no publisher ever would: "Do you have another story collection?"

My greatest hope is that Englander would respond by saying, "I'm just finishing it up. I'll have it to you in a few months."