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Tuesday, January 14, 2014
When Characters Do and Don’t Become Long-Time Friends
View to north through falling snow
must be often puzzled by her human housemates. She may recognize occasional
value in the movies we watch, because once in a while a dog or other
interesting animal appears on the screen, giving voice to feelings not
completely beyond her ken. (She looks up then and watches the screen with alert
attention.) But what does she make of all the hours we sit quietly reading? For
that matter, what does she make of our endless conversations? Dinner, now,
that makes sense, but why do they sit at the table and keep making noises at
each other long after they’re done eating? They take turns, but it isn’t as if
they’re throwing a ball back and forth or anything. What is the point?
Boiled corned beef brisket with vegetables and stewed fruit
the weekend, David read to me from the New Yorker, I read to him from Julia
Child’s My Life in France, and we watched several more episodes of “Doc Martin”
on DVD, our vicarious winter travel to a little seaside village in Cornwall. After
a cozy Sunday Cornish binge, David commented on how different watching a series
is from watching a 90-minute movie, because with the movie you meet the
characters and leave them an hour and a half later, while with the series you
meet them again and again, in different situations. Between episodes you wonder
and speculate and worry about them. (“What do you suppose...?” we often say to
each other, trying to predict a future development between characters.)I remarked that this has always been a
good part of why people follow soap operas. David observed that even in the
case of Burt, a character he doesn’t find particularly appealing, he doesn’t
want to see anything bad happen to him. We have entered into this little
village world, gotten to know these people, and have learned to care about
occurred to me that there is a parallel here with literature, namely one of the
differences between novels and short stories. That is, even a long short story,
unless it has characters or settings that appear in other stories by the
author, gives a reader only a single chance to connect to its world. The
collection by Elizabeth Strout titled Olive Kitteridge is an exception, reading more like a novel, and The
too, by James McVey, while lacking the “closure” of a typical novel, has continuity from one
story to the next by virtue of its single character presented in chronological
episodes. Usually, however, like a movie, the short story is experienced in a
single sitting, and however powerful, however moving it is, when we reach the
end of the story, we close the book and leave its world behind. The only way to
encounter the characters again is by choosing to re-read the story. We may
remember the story and its characters, but we don’t expect future developments.
contrast, the experience of reading a novel can easily command a reader’s
attention day after day, sometimes for weeks. We read a few pages or chapters
and lay the book aside, but in the interval between readings we wonder what
will happen next and are impatient to re-enter the increasingly familiar
fictional world. We miss the characters while between “episodes.”
course, fictional friends are not perfect. (No friends are, and we are not
perfect ourselves.) David can get impatient with Dr. Ellingham’s lack of a
sense of humor and his inability to smile. Martin did smile when dancing with Louisa
(or “Louiser,” as the other characters call her) at their wedding reception,
but he didn’t “show his teeth,” as David wants him to do, and once he told a
joke to a patient, but without a smile the patient wasn’t sure it was a joke at
first, and neither were we. What bothers me most about Martin is the way he
seems to feel nothing at all for dogs. He is similarly immune to the beauty of
horses, but dogs? Can a man be fully human who has no feeling for dogs? Humans
co-evolved with dogs! What’s odd is that dogs seem to like him, though, and that gives me
hope. I’m giving this crusty friend a chance. He had a difficult childhood....
no shortcut to a long friendship. On the other hand, over many years there’s
time for a friendship to ebb and flow, wax and wane, and to go through rough patches or
periods of neglect, historical fluctuations in attention that a single brief
conversational encounter cannot accommodate. If you meet someone only once, for
half an hour or half a day, the encounter must have a certain intensity to
leave any permanent mark. It demands a sharper continued focus for the length
of its shorter existence.
short story is much more like a movie than is a novel. If your attention wanders in the movie
theatre, you’re likely to miss key elements that leave you in the dark in more
ways than one. In a film, as in a short story, every word and every image
has to count to achieve the overall effect. It isn’t like a novel, where – as in life – the
narrator and characters can wander off onto side roads, for no other reason
than that the side road presented attractive temptations and they have plenty
for movies and serial television programs have no problem shifting from the
long-term, getting-to-know-you quality of the series to the single-shot drama
of film because they don’t expect of one medium what only the other delivers.
No one expects a book of poems to be a novel, either, I’m sure (although here,
too, Anne-Marie Oomen’s Uncoded Woman is a striking exception, the protagonist’s life
unfolded chronologically from one poem to the next), and so no one criticizes a
book of poetry for not being a novel. (They may avoid the poetry because it isn’t a novel, isn’t a narrative, but that’s something else
again, a side road I won’t go down today.) Well, a short story does not “fail”
to be a novel, either. Its essential qualities are quite different.
Americans love movies. Therefore....
by economical narrative, often lyrical imagery, and usually a singular pivotal
event in a character’s life, short stories do not generally introduce us to
characters who will become long-term fictional friends. But short acquaintances
can be memorable, too, even unforgettable.
Some authors generously give us both options. Leelanau County's own Donald Lystra (we share him with Ann Arbor), author of the award-winning Season of Water and Ice, has captured another Michigan Notable Book award with his recent collection of short stories, Something That Feels like Truth.Bonnie Jo Campbell is another Michigan author who has written and published fiction in both short and long form. I'll be reading more short fiction this winter, no doubt, in the intervals between episodes of Swann's Way, so look for this topic to come up again soon.
Sunday and Monday constitute our January thaw? What do you think? And what do
you think about short fiction? You may, as I do, love the place where you live,
but I for one would not turn down a week in Florence, Italy, would you? The two women we spoke with in "the scary place," that tiny mountain hamlet in the wilds of southcentral France -- I'll never see them again and did not even get their names, but our meeting stands out in my travel memory book.