Rambling at Length About Short Stories

I know that it’s June and technically National Short Story Month has ended, but I don’t want to wait another year to talk about short stories, and this is my blog, dammit, so I’m going to keep talking about short stories. I am well on my way into Lorrie Moore’s captivating first collection of short stories, Birds of America, and I can already feel my short story obsession senses tingling. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this collection once I’ve finished it (definitely a Writer Crush blog post), so for now I can only ponder the questions Lorrie Moore causes in me like so many others: How do they do it? How do they so densely pack story, character, and emotion into such a small space? How do they laugh in the face of word counts?

There is a short story I’ve been thinking a lot about for the last couple of days. I visited the Hamptons for the first time this past weekend. What a strange trip–I’ve seen wealth before, but never of this variety. Driving along roads that led me past mansions, pools, and freshly mowed lawns and interacting with a special breed of people–popped polo collars and khakis, designer linen dresses, the whiff of entitlement and unfulfilled marriages–I couldn’t help but think of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” perhaps the greatest portrait of the crumbling life of a wealthy WASP. I honestly don’t remember if the story–of a man who decides to travel across his county via swimming pool–takes place in the Hamptons, but it might as well. It has all the luxurious trappings of life in the Hamptons: the free-flowing booze, the languid attitudes, and the underlying sense of dread. I love visiting the settings of stories I love. Without the context of “The Swimmer,” I may have never been able to survive a weekend as a “have-not” in a world of “haves.” This is definitely a short story I would recommend for Short Story Month and beyond (for extra fun, you can read it on the Hamptons jitney as you sit next to an investment banker and his wife with the all Louis Vuitton luggage).

Powell’s Books in Portland recently got in on the National Short Story Month action with their 2014 Short List. To promote what they call “compact prose,” Powell’s has started an annual tradition of listing the best short story collections in a given theme. This year, they compiled the best collections of the 21st century. There is a wealth of heavy-hitters on the list, from short story royalty–Alice Munro, the aforementioned Lorrie Moore, George Saunders–to those who master both long and short form: Jess Walters, David Foster Wallace, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I love seeing “best of” lists entirely comprised of short stories. Have you ever noticed how shortlists for awards or recaps of the previous year’s best books usually have only the one token short story collection (George Saunders amongst a heap of novels). Is no one bold enough to proclaim short stories better? Alas, I digress, and what’s the point of arguing? Just as long as short stories receive equal treatment as novels and people stop using the word “slight” with such pretension and backhandedness, I’ll be happy.

A photo of SPU (David Ryder/Reuters).
A photo of SPU (David Ryder/Reuters).

So that was a mostly coherent, if not necessarily cohesive rambling about short stories. Now, I’m going to make a bit of a jump, back to Lorrie Moore and onto something completely different: Last week, a shooting occurred at my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Within the wash of shooting stories that seem to now hit us every week (some journalists so numb to gun violence they recite recent mass shootings like a grocery list), I felt this one so close to home: the campus pictures online, the mention of the hall where I once took classes. I felt angry, I talked with friends about reforming gun control laws, but ultimately, I was left shaking my fists at an empty sky.

Then I read Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America” about a young child suffering from cystic fibrosis. There is no happy ending at the close of the story, but there is this: “This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed–this body, these bodies, that body–so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?” The narrator yells at heaven, at God, at whatever is supposed to be up there allowing children to suffer and mass murder to become a daily news item. I read this on the jitney to the Hamptons, felt my insides shake, and closed the book. No one around me knew what sorrow I was harboring or that I really had no place in their haven for the wealthy and seemingly untouchable. They only saw me holding a book, a collection of short stories, and yet if they only knew what profundity could be found within it, perhaps we could have found a place to start. I am a champion for the short story–for all and what and everything it’s managed.

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