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#112 Play Scale

Some while ago, I was invited, quite inexplicably, to contribute an essay to a competition on a site dedicated to the art of the short story. Time was short, but out of boredom with the other work I was doing, I knocked out a piece and sent it off at the last moment. The silverware has been conspicuous by its absence in the post of late, so I presume my musings, perfectly explicably, weren’t up to muster. For what it’s worth, here they are . . . .

When it comes to reading short stories, I’d prefer not to. As a premise for a piece submitted to a site promoting the short story this is not hugely promising. But bear with me.

It’s not mere prejudice that puts me off. I’ve tried, believe me. I’ve read short stories by just about every writer working in the genre who has ever had a ‘greatest’ or ‘best’ appended to their name; from Poe to Turgenev, Fitzgerald to Faulkner, Saki to Rulfo, Flannery O’ Connor to J.D. Salinger, Chekhov to Carver, Maupassant to Mansfield, Jorge Luis Borges to Annie Proulx . . . been there, done that. I’ve even waded through the collected works of both V. S. Pritchett and William Trevor, having purchased these massive volumes in a misguided spirit of self-improvement and being too mean not to get my money’s worth thereafter. In the last year alone, I have read The Progress of Love by Alice Munro, Cross Channel by Julian Barnes, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders, and Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti . . . all of which might suggest a mild propensity for masochism in someone who professes not to like reading short stories.

To be fair, both to the stories’ authors and to myself, there were moments of pleasure in all these reading experiences (with the possible exception of Edgar Allen Poe, who still gives me nightmares for all the wrong reasons), pleasures inspired by the cadences of the prose, striking images, one-liners that made me smile, and the occasional clutch at the heart. Moreover, there are scenes, settings, and situations that have insinuated themselves into my mind and refuse to go away, wafting about the nether regions of memory, so completely dislocated from context that, when an event or phrase reminds me of them, I am left wondering where on earth I picked up that particular brainworm. This suggests it is not a lack of literary quality that puts me off short stories. All the things that obsessive writers and readers love most, all the things that are most baffling to people not bitten by the bug for words, are there in abundance. But there is a problem of scale.

In part, this stems from a lingering literary machismo. I’m not talking some Hemingwayesque hard man fantasy. I never did understand Hemingway. More of a cup of tea and a biscuit man myself. All that posturing and pared down prose makes me want to put on my slippers and reach for the Thesaurus. When I started writing though, I was tainted by a slight “Mine’s bigger than yours” approach to the whole business. Moby Dick was my model and the principal quality I identified in Moby Dick (I have an eye for these things) was that it was big and wildly ambitious. Then I read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and brevity was a lost cause as far as I was concerned. I wanted more words for my money, good words, well used words, but lots of them, please, describing lots of stuff happening. There are writers like Jim Harrison and Alice Munro who can contrive a panoramic scale in a few pages, conjuring complete lives in the length of a modest magazine article, producing what are effectively compacted novels, but too often for my tastes, short stories encapsulate a moment and fail to link it to all the other moments that surround it, and which might turn it into a decent novel.

Implicit in this is a second objection. Concision entails evocation rather than exposition. As a result, I frequently end a short story dimly aware that something has taken place, something highly meaningful and fraught with consequences that are going to shape the characters’ lives irrevocably, only I’m none too sure what it is. This haziness might be ascribed to rubbish reading skills, but I don’t think it’s simply boorishness on my part. I can spot significance in the murkiest of waters, read meaning into some fabulously obscure works. Sometimes, I’m not sure how, I even understand Umberto Eco. However, I need time and space in which to do it. Crystallizing a life in a single, superficially trivial incident tends to illuminate without clarifying, as if lucidity relies upon the long view. And “Hang on, what happened there?” is not a gratifying sentiment with which to end a story, no matter how brief.  

Even in works apparently crowded with incident, like Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’, I can recall a sense of so-whatism. I mean, here’s a story about sex and death involving several very large, very vexed, and very heavily toothed animals lumbering about against the backdrop of an exotic landscape in order to get themselves gunned down by some bloke with a big shirt and a dodgy wife and a weird way of proving his virility, yet as I remember (I read it thirty years ago and don’t intend reading it again) it doesn’t take you anywhere . . . except possibly back to your slippers and Thesaurus and vague misgivings about precisely what it was that his Mum did to little Ernest when he was small and helpless.

Reservations about the form notwithstanding, there are three short stories that will remain with me for the rest of my life. They are of varying quality, but in each, the author begins with a simple premise then pushes it so far toward its logical conclusion that it becomes gloriously surreal. That’s what I like best in short stories, their capacity for absurdity. Despite all its swaggering braggadocio, the novel is a delicate creature, liable to lose all credibility if things get too ludicrous. By contrast, the short story can carry off playfulness with an almost infantile insouciance. Perhaps this is where scale helps. When the big and beefy get playful, they just look daft. Gravity weighs them down and clumsiness subverts their mischief making. You need to be more nimble, lighter on your feet to get away with these things.

The first of the three stories is Melville’s ‘Bartleby, The Scrivener’, which is sufficiently famous to need no introduction. The second is Louis de Bernières’ ‘Labels’, detailing the fall and rise of a man with an ungovernable passion for the labels on tins of cat food. The third is Italo Calvino’s ‘The Black Sheep’, a perfect little parable examining the catastrophic consequences when one honest man inexplicably appears in a society of villains.

There was a literary vogue in the seventeenth century for ‘ludibriums’, capricious or trivial games, like the pamphlets that triggered the Rosicrucian furore. Most of these ludibriums were woefully short on laughs, aspiring at best to a schoolmasterly sniggering up the sleeve, and even then the wit and humour were surpassingly slim. Nonetheless, ludibrium is still a good word, one we would be well advised to remember in a world where po-faced moralists are prone to dismantling one another, their barbarisms validated by the solemnity of their own self-esteem. For me, the best short stories are ludibriums or capricious games, games that may or may not tell us something meaningful about life, but which gleefully embrace the wilful absurdity of human being.

Mind you, you don’t want to listen to me.

When it comes to reading short stories, I’d prefer not to.