[25 June 2008]
The short story gets short shrift in the literary world. Novels get all the press, just as colossal canvases get the attention at galleries, yet as the adage goes, size isn’t everything. In some cases, epic novels are not long because they require that much space to contain their great ideas, but because the author is enamored with their own voice. Metaphorically, an entree isn’t more delicious than an appetizer simply because it’s a larger portion of food. An exceptional short story provides the same amount of satisfaction as a novel, it simply reaches that destination by a less circuitous route.
My favorite short story writers tend to be short story writers by trade, not by turn. I don’t begrudge a novelist making a foray into shorter pieces, but many novelist’s short stories seem to be a testing ground, as if these were the children who couldn’t graduate to Novel school, who lacked the substance to join their parent’s legitimate oeuvre of progeny. Knowing that Debra Dean had established herself in the literary world with a novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, I was leery of a short story collection, as such offers sometimes read like a compendium of incomplete ideas, compiled to fulfill a contractual obligation. (Her decision to end the book with a 100+ page novella underscored my suspicion.)
My concerns were allayed by the first story in Confessions of a Falling Woman, “What the Left Hand is Saying”, an engaging tale of a stranger who ingratiates himself with a variety of tenants in an apartment building and unites them as a happy community before moving on with an unexpected method of goodbye. By the end of the story, I was hooked.
Dean clearly loves to craft sentences, and she does it very well—her writing isn’t cinematic (an adjective I often hear for modern writers who grew up with less James Joyce and more James Bond) but painterly, little details accentuated to draw the reader into the story. Here’s a representative sample from “Another Little Piece”:
They stopped at a traffic signal and waited for a ridiculously long time, the only car at the intersection, while the ghosts of daytime traffic were ushered through ... the light changed, and they drove through downtown. At night, it looked like a scene from a science fiction movie, silent and swept clean of humanity. The wide streets were deserted, traffic signals washing the empty pavement green, then yellow, then red.
She is also very crafty with her approach to point of view. Along with traditional first-person narratives that explore motivations and third-person tellings that offer voyeuristic images of her characters’ lives, she includes a monologue from a psychiatrist’s couch, the heroine responding to questions we never hear (“The Bodhisattva”) and a letter from an ex-spouse, long separated after the death of their child (“Confessions of a Falling Woman”). Dean relies on her experiences as a stage actress to fuel her plot lines (“write what you know”, the writer mags assure), though her stories take place off-the-clock, so despite an occasionally common thread, the real action takes place in living rooms and motel rooms and bars, locales where occupations fall away and personalities take center stage.
One caveat about her writing style is that her appreciation for picturesque phrases can sometimes be a distraction: Within the six pages that make up “The Afterlife of Lyle”, she attaches adjectives to the sky every time it makes a fleeting appearance in the story:
“Lyle could see through the panes, a bruised gray sky”
“watching a gull wheel and scream through a dishwater sky”
“shrouded in the perpetual drizzle of February”
”... looked out at the bay and the sky, a single gray curtain of water”
But that’s a minor complaint, especially since the verbose sky offenses take place in the least interesting story in the collection: When her plots are thick, her words are nestled in securely; when they’re thin, the words stand out nakedly. Fortunately, most of her plots engaged me, so her descriptions were both contributory and delicious.
Dean is like good host at a dinner party, regaling with an enthusiasm that entertains her guests. Short stories may seem like literary appetizers, but with Confessions of a Falling Woman, the assortment of flavors and consistency of preparation had me leaving the table satisfied.