Although I prefer reading short stories to novels, I do occasionally read the "loose baggy monsters," as Henry James called them. I recently read two novels back to back--Ethan Canin's America America and Tim Winton's Breath, and the difference between the way the two books are structured reminded me of a basic difference between the way novels and short stories are structured.
Canin's book is a traditional Bildungsroman, a novel about the coming-of-age of a young man; but it is also a political novel with a message, sometimes laid on too heavy-handedly by Canin, in which the lost idealism of a boy is a reflection of the lost idealism of a nation. As the title suggests, this book intends to be an “American Dream” epic, a “great American novel,” in the classic sense. Perhaps for this reason, the plot moves with a kind of predictable inevitability.
Breath is a also a Bildungsroman about the coming of age of a young man in a small town on the western coast of Australia in the early 1970s. What holds the novel together is the thematic device suggested by the title--that breathing, the most essential human activity, is also the most unconscious and taken-for-granted ordinary activity. Consequently, to be able to manipulate breathing—by holding one’s breath, by putting a plastic bag over one’s head to come as close to death as possible—is a way to make the ordinary extraordinary.
Italian novelist Alberto Moravia once argued that the difference between the short story and the novel is the difference between their ground plan or structure. The novel, he says, has a bone structure of ideology, whereas the short story is boneless. Thus, while the short story is more like a lyric, the novel is similar to the essay or the philosophical treatise.
Winton's short novel is held together by the repetition of the central theme of "breath," whereas Canin's novel is held together by the basic plot line of lost idealism about political figures and political life. The result is that Breath is like a short story in structure, tightly organized around a central metaphoric theme, whereas America America is structured like the traditional novel, exploring social expectations and philosophic ideas. As a result of this difference, Canin can put a lot of "stuff" in his novel--ruminations, historical contexts, everyday acts-- whereas Winton, for the most part, restricts himself to material that binds the thematic pattern of the novel.