Short Stories and Voice

Well, I’m drunk, I can’t sleep, I have to work tomorrow, and I finally picked up and started reading Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God today, and all of this made me want to talk a bit about short stories. Part of this, btw, is because I’ve been finishing a book of short stories in the last few months, and am (HOPEFULLY HOPEFULLY) really close to soon saying “I finished a book of short stories.” So they’ve been on my mind a lot.

A few stories into reading Keret, I thought that it reminded me a lot of when I read Miranda July’s collection of stories. It reminded me so much of how I felt reading her that I Googled “Miranda July Etgar Keret” and it turns out they’ve done a collaboration together. Wowserz! So I guess it’s not just me. I liked July’s book, and I’m liking Keret so far, but neither of them (so far) have really struck me in my heart all that much? (with the very notable exception of July’s story “Something That Needs Nothing,” which really gets me every time for a few different reasons). And I like both their books, maybe it’s like they tickle me in every part of my body except my heart.

It’s not that they’re clinical like the way some super-talented writers are, where the story feels overproduced. I feel this way, say, about most of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair (though I love most of DFW), and George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation (haven’t read any other Saunders though). I guess the weird thing is about books like Keret’s and July’s, is that even though I really enjoy reading them, like really! I’m digging Keret and I dug July! They also remind me of books I love more?

A few months back I read All The Pretty Girls by Chandra Mayor (if you have never heard of her, just get the book now so your reading life can get better). I loved it to fucking bits and it took my heart out for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it portrays the city of Winnipeg in a way that was very visceral and real to me, and particularly speaks to the world I lived in when I was a kid, which, until I moved back here, I had little else but my memories to relate to. But anyway, in Chandra’s book, the protagonists in her stories seem to be more or less the same woman. And it made me think: I love collections of stories like that. Hell, I just love authors like that. I thought about this a lot too when I read Amy Hempel, which I did very slowly and deliberately for a lot of last year. The voice of her narrator doesn’t really change that much, and I absolutely love that. I really don’t mind. It’s the collections of stories that span all gamuts of characters and internal people that honestly never quite hit home for me, that always feel to me a bit detached. As much as I love the above David Foster Wallace, for instance, his fiction only pushes on my heart in very specific and rare moments, and I wonder if maybe for this reason.

I also get to read with Chandra Mayor in a few weeks at McNally Robinson (I dunno if anybody from Winnipeg will read this blog but HERE’S THE EVENT PAGE JUST IN CASE) so that is kinda stupidly cool and exciting.

I thought about this especially when I re-read Miriam Toews’ Swing Low a couple months ago, herĀ  spare, dark, beautiful book about her father’s suicide, told through his eyes in first-person. Her father, as a character, is so obviously different from Miriam’s usual fictional protagonists: a mid-century Mennonite schoolteacher from Steinbach, Manitoba struggling with bipolar, as opposed to the desperate broke sad apostate girls that make up the protagonists of her fiction. But her writing voice, somehow, to me, is the same. Like I can hear her voice behind the keyboard at the same time that I hear her father speaking. That book hit really hard and close to home the first time I read it (being in my grandfather’s basement in Blumenort, Manitoba at the time probably didn’t help). I cried again reading it this time, though not as much as the first time.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here, though it’s not really that revolutionary a thought, is that I never really connect as much with books when the authors have such a level of wizardry that no story feels the same from one to the next? When there isn’t a voice. That’s how I felt when I read Girl With Curious Hair. While the opening story’s ending just killed me, and the title story absolutely was genius enough to push beyond the Cleverness Mountain, the rest of it was like…it was good, very very good and I liked reading it…but I couldn’t really pick out a voice. Like it was a blast and it was thoughtful but it didn’t move me. I couldn’t really hear him as an author speaking to me (which I do when I read his non-fiction, I should say, which I mostly love quite a bit). And I wonder if that’s why I didn’t love it, like I do his non-fiction, or I loveĀ Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Another good example here is Junot Diaz, whose short fiction I finally read this past year, both Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. I mean, he’s done the thing where he’s just put the same dude, Yunior, as the same narrator for every story, but to me it works the same as Amy Hempel or Chandra Mayor: You can hear their voices so strongly and clearly. I love that. So who cares if a dozen stories with ostensibly different names and faces and descriptions swirl together into a mass. (Lorrie Moore is another good example of someone who pulls this off, I think.)

Why am I bringing all this up in a fit of whiskey haze and insomnia at 2:30 in the morning? *scrolls up* Etgar Keret, right. I guess I should really just finish the book. In the meantime, it’s -30 and balls-ass freezing here in One Great City y’all, and my radiator is overheating and I am sweating bullets, so I may actually crack a window. In the meantime, g’night.