One of my favorite things to do these days is to wake up early, make coffee, and crawl back into bed with a book of short stories. The overhead lamp makes a circle of light in the dark morning that spotlights me and my book, and, with the bedroom door closed and my ear devices sleeping in their little storage box, I am pleasantly isolated.
A volume of short stories is as close to reading perfection that you’ll ever find. A novel will have one ending that takes days to approach, but a collection of shorts has twenty or thirty endings; on a relaxed morning I can get through a half dozen of them, going from beginning to end and from up to down and up again– a series of endings that take place all before I have actually started my day in the outside world.
I often re-read some favorites, though lately I’m immersed in Amy Hempel. My favorite is Shirley Jackson, who wrote The Lottery. (You first read it in an eighth grade anthology and, if you were paying attention, have not forgotten it to this day.) Shirley is the master of the form; she wrote from the late 1940s through the middle 1960s, almost always in vignettes pointing up the horrible little things we do to one another on a daily basis: we lie, we cheat, we use one another. Sometimes we are victims of things beyond our control: Jackson sends those people on delightfully frightening sorties into the unknown, almost like she’s passing judgement on us in those stories. Her novels got more engrossing over the years, like The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In the Castle, but it’s her short stories that wield the daggers.
John Cheever is another favorite. His stories portray American life as it was lived from the 1940s through the 1980s, capturing this enormous sea change beautifully– from postwar angst to suburban sterility. His characters are often lost and sad or desperate, but struggling to survive from day-to-day. A lot of them live in New York apartments, and you can smell the leather furniture and the cigars and picture the Venetian blinds at the windows that look out onto the harbor.
Then there’s Ernest Hemingway’s famous short, complete: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Amy Hempel is new to me. She comes highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, and he’s to be commended for his writerly generosity. Hempel’s quiet voice paints pictures of a life lived in wonder or bemusement, and the voice I hear in my head as I read is wry and questioning and often confused– sort of like Louise Lasser doing Mart Hartman. Sometimes she is goofy and does things that any of us would be embarrassed at, so you laugh out loud and almost knock over your coffee cup.
Myself, I like writing them. When I am compelled to write, I remember things from when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, and I try to conjure up what it felt like living on the block in those years. Sometimes I write about things that really happened, and sometimes I make up stories using characters who are impossible to forget, almost as if I’m filling in the blanks of what went on behind their closed doors. Sometimes they’re funny, and sometimes they’re disturbing, but mostly we laughed.
I like short stories, but I don’t like that we seem to live our own lives “shortly.” Everything is so fast anymore– I think computers and hand-held devices have created an urgency that we don’t quite know what to do with. People who work full-time jobs seem to be doing more and more in less and less time thanks in large part to staff cuts. And I wonder at the quality of our work– are we doing things just to get them done, or are we actually producing wonderful and lasting results? In any case, is anyone paying attention? We’re all in a hurry sometimes to get to the ending of our personal short stories, only to have to hurry up and turn the page to begin the next. My writer’s ego asks friends, “did you read my blog?” and they say “there were too many words… I didn’t have time” but I take it all personally.
Short stories are good on paper, when they are gathered into a book to be read and tasted and appreciated when we choose to. I wish our lives weren’t short stories, and that we were all able to live the long lives we promised each other.