Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tamar Yellin's "Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes": Organizing Short Story Collections

Tamar Yellin’s second collection of stories, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, was published earlier this year by The Toby Press and has recently come out in paperback. I just had a chance to read it. I have not read her first collection Kafka in Bronteland and Other Stories, so her work is new to me.

I like her stories. They are tightly, thematically organized, as is typical of the well-made Chekhovian short story. They seem perfect paradigms of Frank O’Connor’s thesis in his book The Lonely Voice that the short story often focuses on a “submerged population group,” by which he means a character who is cut off from the mainstream of society and thus who must define himself or herself existentially in crisis moments.

I recommend this collection of stories for their individual emphases on characters who search for something intangible that always lies just beyond their reach—a special language, a special book, a perfect narrative, a homeland, etc.

However, the issue I would like to raise in this blog entry is the author’s effort to organize a collection of stories into a book. What Yellin does is give the names of one of the lost tribes of Israel to each one of her stories and to preface each story with quotes from various historians and theologians about the lost tribes.

I don’t think that Yellin wrote the stories specifically to fit this overall structure. I think she wrote the stories as individual stand-alone stories and then, finding she had enough for a book, faced the usual publisher’s demand that collections of stories have an organizing structure so that it can be marketed as if it were a novel, or at least that the publisher can leave off the subhead “And Other Stories” from the cover.

Most all the stories have a first-person narrator, and the progress of the stories move from a young child through a young student to a teacher to an older person—as if the narrator were the same for each story, thus making the book simulate the coming-of-age novel. However, curiously, the narrator is never named, and, even more curious, the gender of the narrator is never made clear, although some stories strongly suggest a female narrator.

One could make the case that the lack of name and gender of the narrator universalizes the voice and throws the most emphasis on the character with whom she/he comes in contact, for most all the stories focus on an obsessed character that the narrator encounters. But I am not sure about this.

The striking exception is the last story, which seems very obviously a version of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, with the narrator playing the Marlowe role, going up river to try to find a mysterious, somewhat magical, figure who is possibly the quintessential Wandering Jew. Since the narrator never finds the figure, the focus here is solely on the narrator.

Yellin’s short story collections have not, as far as I can tell, sold widely, nor have they been widely reviewed, especially in the United States. They may have been reviewed more widely in the United Kingdom, for she lives in Yorkshire. If you are interested, she has a website at http://www.tamaryellin.com/

If you have not run across Yellin, I recommend her to you. In an interview that is available online, she has said she is more comfortable with the short story than the novel, for she likes every word and sentence to have weight. “When I write stories I can be as brief as I like. And yet a short story can embrace an entire life, an entire universe.”

She also says a story is not worth telling unless it has some deeper meaning. I agree completely. Any writer who thinks this highly of the short story and continues to write them even though her publisher may strongly encourage her to write novels, or at least to make her story collections promotable as novels, is usually worth reading, as far as I am concerned.

The general issue Yellin’s book raises, an issue I have talked about before, is the difference between a chapter in a novel and a story in an organized collection. In my opinion, short stories differ from chapters in novels in that each short story demands a more careful attention and a closer reading than chapters in novels usually do, since the chapter is merely a part of a whole, whereas a short story must stand completely alone as an individually organized narrative entity.

One reason that short stories do not sell as well as novels is this individual demand that each story makes on the reader. If the stories are good stories, linking them together under some overarching rubric will not eliminate this demand; you still will not be able to read them as if they were chapters. And if you can read them as if they were chapters, they are either not very good short stories or else you are not reading them carefully. As usual, I would appreciate any reaction to my polemics. I have been at this long enough to be hardheaded about it, but not so long that I cannot learn from others.


essygie said...

I read one of her stories (available on her site through the link you provide) and wasn't interested enough to read anymore - just a personal preference, as I like a more direct approach to storytelling and found her obliqueness meant I never became engaged with any of the characters. I also agree that it was hard to see what the story had to do with the title (and, interestingly enough it had a different and far more relevant title when it was first published in a magazine).

Ann Graham said...

Your essay is helpful in articulating something I have intuitively sensed. When I read short stories, I build pictures in my mind and as long as my pictures make sense, I do not need a linear progression.

Maybe that is why I simply cannot read novels. I cannot remember the linear progression and novels ramble on to much for me to build my pictures.

And, I like what Munro says about the event. I think I agree with that too.