“She did talk about her work,” Madeline told me when I asked. “Who, what, when, where why.” Was that all? “Well, she said you have to do that in her job. Know what the story is. She said that to John when he was shy.” But how, that was my question, how do you know what the story is? And if you do, how do you pull it, like a Slinky in the toy bin, out of the mass of everything else?
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Book Review: TERRARIUM: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES
Fresh ARC in hand from a writer whose work I have long admired -- always exciting!
Valerie Trueblood’s new collection, to be released on August 7 of this year, will be a joy to those encountering her work for the first time, as well as to her long-time admirers. To call the book a “joy,” however, is in no way to suggest escapist fiction. Far from it. New stories in the Terrarium section, like those from earlier collections and from her novel, Seven Loves, run the gamut in tone from quixotic to grim, but all are realistic and compelling. This writer’s characters are real people — dreaming, trying, stumbling, falling, and going on as long as they can.
In any collection, it’s difficult not to have favorites, and the story that hit me hardest in this new group was “Crisco.” In only four pages, the author weaves different strands together — the global world of spies and other news, a local high school basketball star, a young reporter, a beautiful killer horse, a baby given up for adoption, losses inflicted by a distant war — to form a complete world.
The quote above comes from the middle of the story (nearly its geographical center), and the question recurs in the final paragraph, where the narrator suggests possible answers to “What is the story?” That list of possibilities was nearly enough to break this reader’s heart! As always with Trueblood’s writing, however, all remains simplicity, even the all-too-human confusion brought to the question — and this is a paradox, friends, not a contradiction. Again, realistic.
As a terrarium is a small, enclosed world, a miniature portion of earth, just so do many of the Terrarium stories show the author experimenting with more condensed pieces than appeared in her earlier short story collections, Search Party; Marry or Burn, and Criminals: Love Stories. One of the stories in the volume Criminals, “Sleepover,” almost feels like novella, whereas “Harvest,” in the new book, is a single paragraph, and neither, of course, is wrong. A story (like a poem) should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. It is Trueblood’s gift to have such an unerring feel for what is necessary and to pare away the rest.
I’ve been thinking once again in general about short stories, a recurrent subject of my bookseller musings, and it strikes me that the readers who most appreciate the form are other writers. Whether their own work is fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, long or short forms, writers are more aware than any other readers of the level of craft that short fiction (like poetry) demands. A novel may wander or digress, without injury, but the writer of short stories must deny herself that self-indulgent luxury. In a short story, every word has to count.
And here’s something else I noticed in the Terrarium stories. While not every question is answered and many puzzles are left unresolved, at any particular story’s last line I never had the feeling of having been pushed out of a speeding car and left on the side of the highway. I felt satisfied. Not necessarily in every case optimistic or relieved but always, in a literary sense, satisfied.
Shall I add that dogs figure into many of the stories? Is that an extraneous, irrelevant detail? I have nothing like Valerie’s gift for writing, but her stories are gifts to all readers.