A short story says, “I looked for x, and didn’t find it,” or, “I was not looking anymore, and then I found x.” A novel says, “I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w.” The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.
The novel is a fundamentally ironic form; hence its power of self-regeneration.
to my mind, immediately and unhappily equivalent to new American short fiction.
And yet I think the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between features and reviews; and by workshop-based creative writing programs and their attendant literary journals.
Granted, Chekhov was writing from a different point in the historico-philosophical dialectic: a character could be called “Gurov’s wife,” “the bureaucrat,” or “the lackey,” and nobody would take it as a political statement. Would Pushkin have managed to inspire anybody at all had he written: “The night before Countess Maria Ivanovna left for Baden Baden, a drunken coachman crashed the Mirskys’ troika into the Pronskys’ dacha”? Pushkin knew that it is neither necessary nor desirable for the first sentence of a literary work to answer the “five w’s and one h.” Many of the Best Americans assume this perverse burden.
The result is not just in medias res, but in-your-face in medias res, a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” I had to stare at these sentences (from Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” and Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier”) for several minutes each.Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American).In acknowledgment of the times, the 20 volumes each contain exactly one Middle East story, each featuring a character called Hassan. I was no less annoyed by John Briggs or John Hillman than by Sybil Mildred Clemm Legrand Pascal, who invites the reader to call her Miss Sibby.Then he broke through the formal “prison”: he made the gap the subject of a book.Many of the Best American stories are set in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.In “Lady with Lapdog,” Gurov’s wife gets a few lines of dialogue, but no name.Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, the lapdog—all remain mercifully nameless. of names so relentless as in the first sentences, which are specific to the point of arbitrariness; one expects to discover that they are all acrostics, or don’t contain a single letter e. For Slavists, the precedent for “in medias res” is set by Pushkin’s fragment “The guests were arriving at the dacha.” According to Tolstoy’s wife, this sentence inspired the opening of .The short story is a fundamentally unironic form, and for this reason I think it is doomed.When the available literary forms no longer match the available real-life content, the novel can reabsorb the mismatch and use it as material.Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” Meanwhile, the ghosts of deleted paragraphs rattle their chains from the margins.I recently read from cover to cover the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 20.