I confessed in my last column that short stories are not my favorite genre. In fact, I tend to avoid them altogether. This is an embarrassing thing for a writer to admit. All the “cool kids” seem to like short stories, both reading and writing them. But I prefer fiction with room for a more gradual arc. I don’t want it to be over by the time I catch on to the rhythm of the thing.
Still, it’s good to be open minded, so I decided to sample some pithier tales. It was a busy week, and I appreciated being able to dip in and out of my literature the same way that my son Gavin dips into our inflatable pool after a long, sweltering day at camp—brief immersions, no Olympic undertakings.
I eased into this week’s selections gradually, with an author whose name has surfaced for me in other, nonfiction reads. Barry Lopez often writes about place, about nature. There’s a reverent tone between the lines of some nature and environmental pieces when his name is invoked. He won a National Book Award in the 1980s for his nonfiction book, Arctic Dreams. In Field Notes, Lopez speaks in an unembellished voice. His themes remind me of things that happen in dreams. Not the sort of dreams where your frazzled brain is processing a hodgepodge of mostly senseless, incongruent images. No, these are the kinds of dreams that stay with you, the ones worth writing down before they fade away with the morning.
The jacket flap uses the term “marvelous strangeness of the world” to describe what Lopez’s stories convey, and this is an accurate encapsulation. His characters, both human and animal, quietly surprise the reader. To me, they are the opposite of “larger than life”—life is larger in them than it might appear on the surface. In the story “Sonora,” deaf scientist Glenn spends his time studying dunes, a passion that leaves him fulfilled but also increasingly lonely. But when he has a long overdue beginning of a tryst with a beautiful woman, he wants something much deeper than what the night can bring. Together the couple connects in an unexpected and moving way. In a more predictable story sex would be the next scene, but what happens instead paints the characters in a softer, more complex, and completely believable light.
It sounds contradictory, but Lopez manages to use words to describe insights that don’t lend themselves to words as much as sensations and intuitions. In “Lessons from the Wolverine,” the narrator doesn’t offer a lot of facts, but he describes a knowing I’ve had myself, something deeper than “book knowledge” that’s difficult to put a finger on, but still it rings true, in the gut:
That winter I dreamed four times about wolverine. I decided I was going to go up there when spring came, regardless. I’ve never been able to learn what I want to know about animals from books or looking at television. I have to walk around near them, be in places where they are. This was the heart of the trouble I had in school. Many of the stories that should have been told about animals, about how they live, their different ways, were never told. I don’t know what the stories were, but when I walked in the woods or out on the prairie or in the mountains, I could feel the boundaries of those stories. I knew they were there, the way you know fish are in a river.
I enjoyed “The Open Lot” the most. Protagonist Jane lives in Manhattan—a departure, Lopez seems to typically favor rural settings. Her knack for uncovering fossils from superficially nondescript hunks of rock at The Museum of Natural History doesn’t garner her any special recognition. Nor does she want that recognition. Jane is a recognizer, a noticer, and Lopez conveys the pleasure found in this quiet role. She alters her walking commute based on the sights and sensations that greet her each particular day. But soon the commute becomes predictable, as her thoughts and feelings are stirred by an abandoned lot on West Seventy-Fifth Street. Beyond the wire fence she sees loamy earth, deer, bear, and birds. She hears a distant river there. Again, completely believable in Lopez’s voice, although not necessarily logical or factual.
The second short story book I read comes from a different gender and a different generation. Alix Ohlin looks incredibly young in her jacket photo, but she’s already published a novel (The Missing Person) and another short story collection and has been lauded for her gifted range and her ability to convey deep emotion.
In Signs and Wonders Ohlin’s voice is smooth and easy, the kind of writing that reads as effortless. But serious things often happen in her stories. Their sobering effect is tempered with the goings on of everyday life, which continues in spite of the more weighty interruptions. Ohlin captures dialogue in the same graspable way that she renders a description—people sound the way they would in real life; there’s no sense of artifice or pretension.
As with Lopez’s stories, Ohlin’s characters often surprise, but in more radical ways. A new stepmother is driven to sacrifice herself for her stepson, a couple reunites despite the botched murder that the man means for his female counterpart, a young woman sees herself in a refreshing new light after being terrorized by her friend’s mother.
Signs and Wonders is an apt name for these stories, which often contain a crucial moment for their characters. The moments themselves aren’t obvious choices, and in this way Ohlin’s writing shares a quality that Lopez exhibits—people come to discover things in roundabout and unpredictable ways. Something—a moment, a touch, a line of conversation—resonates in a way that’s undeniably true to the receiver.
It struck me while reading both collections that quite a bit can be packed into the small container of a short story. There’s room, even, for a sense of the mystical. When I looked up “mystical” in my thesaurus, it brought me to “numinous”, which brought me “spirits or gods believed in some cultures to inhabit places or things.” Lopez and Ohlin both imbue something deeper into turns of events that we can imagine, but for which we might very well miss the point had they unfolded before us. They have us taking a closer look, thinking new and sympathetic thoughts about our neighbors, looking up towards the sky, taking a moment to ponder. I might have to reconsider the place for short stories in my hierarchy of genres. A little mystic shorthand can go a long way.
Books mentioned in this column: