The Art of the Short Story

“What’s your field?” I asked.

“Daisies,” he said. “I happen to be in the field of daisies.” What an answer! How often does one meet, in this black place, a man, woman, or child who can think up a pastoral reply like that?

Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree”

I’ve been working on short stories to procrastinate on the novel, so I decided to read some short story collections that have been sitting on my shelf for a while: George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. I read Saunders’ only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, my third year of university and I absolutely loved it–it’s a novel in dialogue, where all the characters are spirits in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has just been laid to rest. I knew that Saunders was pretty out there, but his stories were even stranger than the novel, and they were clearly the work of a master. I picked up Grace Paley’s book a year ago on one of my periodic bookstore hauls. I hadn’t heard of her–I picked it up because I liked the jacket–but I’m so glad that I decided to read her work. The edition I have also has an introduction by George Saunders, which made a perfect bridge between the books.

I’ve heard George Saunders described more than once as the current master of the short story, and now that I’ve read this collection, I respect the title. I’ve never read anything like these stories. They’re vaguely futuristic, often dark, and so, so vivid. I haven’t lost myself in the world of a short story in a while. Saunders really knows how to create a world through characters’ thoughts, which is definitely something I’ve struggled with. It’s easy to describe what’s happening, but Saunders shows us how people feel. The first story in this collection, “Victory Lap”, begins in the head of a teenage girl named Alison Pope. I fell in love with the energy of the paragraphs in Alison’s voice:

“Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Hellen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual. She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies. Not yet, anyway.”

Saunders’ sentences are gorgeous, but what makes these stories special is how characters interact with each other, and where they lead themselves. I don’t think there was a single story in this collection where I wasn’t dying to know what happened. Everything is recognizable, and most of it could happen today, but in every story things are a little (or a lot) off. For me, it was the perfect escape from anxiety about work and returning to my apartment and my friends. Saunders’ stories provide the opportunity to be someone else for a while. I didn’t feel like I was watching these people’s lives unfold; I felt like I was one of them, reacting to everything they reacted to and waiting for the resolution.

While Saunders’ stories are set in an indeterminate future in nonspecific American communities, Grace Paley writes of a specific place and time: New York City, particularly Brooklyn, in the mid-twentieth century. They follow women in mainly Jewish communities as they navigate their teenage years, motherhood, and ageing. Men tend to be unreliable. Husbands leave, boyfriends cheat, and fathers and sons alike are condescending. Paley is funny, which is a wonderful skill, and she represents multiple generations of Jewish Americans, with all their varying attitudes towards religion, the Yiddish language, and Europe. These stories are enjoyable as a collection because Paley focuses on the same buildings over many stories. She returns to several characters, and a woman named Faith narrates many of her later stories. I’ve always found these connections satisfying, and in Paley’s stories, they help to create the repetition of the domestic sphere in which her female protagonists live. Paley imposes this same claustrophobia on herself; in one story her narrator admits that she can’t write another story about the Yiddish theater, because she exhausted all her knowledge in an earlier story.

There are stories about children which feel fable-like in the characters’ distance from the narrator, and first-person stories which feel much more autobiographical. The Faith stories are by far my favorites in the collection. While many stories are set in single apartments or apartment buildings, Faith moves around the city. She is always defined by her status as a woman, a mother, and a daughter (when she visits her parents in their retirement home), but she finds small ways to rebel. She goes for a run one day and doesn’t come back for weeks; she insults men who approach her in the park; she ignores her parents’ career advice. Paley shows us that a woman’s, and a writer’s, life is difficult. Her intricate characterization shows us all the complexities within people in seemingly average domestic roles.

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If you want to read Tenth of December and The Collected Stories, you can buy them here and support independent bookstores through my Bookshop account!

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