I’m posted up at Peet’s Coffee on Cole Street again, and I’m enjoying the late afternoon linger. Here, I choose to catch up on news, browse through silly memes on the internet, or take things slow and read a book. Today, I chose to read.
My current read is Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, a collection of short stories from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for The Orphan Master’s Sun, 2012). I’m typically staunch on reading novels. Novels take me on vacation from my world. It’s through a novel, an elected escape, that I’m able to consider a life outside of myself and stay there. Through fictional novels, I’ve traveled to the 1920’s French Riviera (Fitzgerad’s Tender is the Night) and Spanish fiestas (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), 1970’s student riots in Tokyo (Murakami’s Norwegian Wood), on a father-son post-apocalyptic adventure (McCormac’s The Road). This full immersion ensures the sweet drug of escapism, pretending and alluring.
So, what about short stories then? They’re only short pieces of fictional work. Seemingly abridged. A tease. What escapism do they offer if a story can range from anything as short as a few pages? And its cousin, a novella, maybe 50 pages?
I’ll admit, at first, I wasn’t keen on reading short stories. I wanted to be drawn into a story; I wanted to elate and ache for characters. I couldn’t see how a short story, much less a collection of short stories, could provide me with my solace. Like a relationship-hungry girl, it’s the commitment that I was after — not the casual and fleeting short story, like a F–k Boy on Tinder who greets you with a “You up?” text at 2am after bars close. I shrugged at short stories. “What is the point?” I’d say to them, discriminating and dismissing an entire literary form.
And then I read a short story that changed my mind altogether and forever. The short story is Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” included as the first short story in her Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). This short story was introduced to me in 2010 by my creative writing professor. I was a junior at UC Santa Barbara, and it was spring semester. The creative writing course quickly became my favorite class during the quarter. I learned about form, theme, diction and syntax, and the story-telling creative process. My professor introduced us to a variety of literary forms, including essays and poems. By far, though, the must useful and most extensive form discussed was the short story. And it is here that I was introduced to Lahiri’s most acclaimed short story.
I want to avoid spoiling this story, but I will say that it enlightened me to the beauty of it for three reasons:
#1: Brevity and Pause
Short stories keep you captivated at short stints with pauses in between each story. A short story is not an abbreviated novel. Actually, it stands on its own merits without previous context or after thought. The characters, plot, and story are lean, edited down to its very core, and self-contained. There is beauty and pain in its brevity: it’s at once a snapshot, a moment in time, yet a story with trajectory that begins and ends in two different places; for well-told stories, it conjures a wanting feeling, leaving you breathlessly asking, “Wait, that’s it?” But you know that the story was enough, that any more would dilute its meaning. Reading Lahiri’s short story helped me understand these feelings and why it is an art form.
A collection of short stories offers multiple perspectives, tales, and storylines in one book, written cohesively by one author. A book of short stories is ideal for a person who likes tapas restaurants, Costco samples, wine tastings, and buffets. Unlike a novel, a short story can take you through multiple perspectives usually, though, tied along a common theme. Still, you could be reading about a romance between boy and girl or a war veteran who returns to his battlegrounds. Authors of short stories take advantage of their chosen form and provides a reader with a kaleidoscope of lenses through which she sees the world through a new outlook.
#3: Highly-Concentrated Flavor
Because short stories are not afforded the full length of a novel (dictated by the author’s creative license), the story is often highly concentrated. Each word, paragraph, and structure are deliberate. The plot is intentional. I don’t want to diminish the novel, but due to the length of a short story, each segment requires an author’s review, edit, revision, and second-third-or-nth opinion. It’s often this undiluted, concentrated story that leaves readers wanting. (And sometimes, as short stories become so popular among readers, or because authors aren’t done with those stories, these become novels.)
New to this form, I continued reading short stories long after my writing class ended. I chose to read collections of short stories by authors that I love. Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Raymond Carver. More and more, I found myself gravitating toward short stories over novels. For those who haven’t dabbled in the world of short stories, here are a few books that I recommend:
- Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies
- Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees
- Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes (Especially, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”)
- Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
So, all in all — I love the short story. Highlighting my current read, Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, I am reminded of why I enjoy this form of literature. The first story, “Nirvana,” was refreshing, while the second, “Hurricane Anonymous” a 60-page saga, left me questioning whether I liked this book. But after the hurricane story, I weathered (lol) through the third story and was delighted that I did. “Interesting Facts” moved me so much that my emotions almost betrayed me in the coffee shop. (My eyes watered, and I pretended to have been bothered by sound of grinding coffee.) Johnson has done a tremendous job of packing in variety, playing with length and perspective, in the first three stories I’ve read so far. I’m optimistic that this book will meet all of my expectations that are included in good book of short stories.
Since starting this post, I’ve moved on from Peet’s Coffee. It’s almost bedtime, and I’m going to continue reading Fortune Smiles. At least for one more story.