Saturday, August 28, 2010

Joan Leegant's An Hour in Paradise

Joan LeeGant was kind enough to write to thank me for including her collection An Hour in Paradise on my list of 100 favorite story collections for the 21st century. I appreciate her response, for I value the relationship between good writers and careful readers. W.W. Norton has just published her first novel, Wherever You Go. (For more about the book, please visit:

I am working on a presentation I am giving next April in Angers, France on the The Short Story and the Author and am looking into reasons why writers like short stories better than readers do and take them more seriously than critics do. If anyone has some ideas on this subject, I would appreciate hearing them.

Here is my brief review of Joan Leegant's An Hour in Paradise

In one of her essays, Joan Leegant describes flying home from a conference in 1998, where her first published story—about a rabbi who considers completing a minyan with a pair of Siamese twins—had won a prize. Flush with this initial success, Leegant wondered if readers might want more of these kinds of stories.

And what kind of stories are these ten well-crafted pieces, many of which have won additional prizes? Well, first of all, they are the kind of stories that focus on modern Jewish characters challenged by the moral and ethical demands of their history and their faith. Second of all, they are the kind of stories that appear in such small circulation literary journals as, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, and The New England Review.

They are the kind of stories that Bernard Malamud used to write; they are just not as mythic and metaphoric. They are the kind of stories that Cynthia Ozick writes; they are just not as dense and intellectual. They may even be a bit like the kind of stories that made a short-term celebrity out of Nathan Englander; they are just not as slick and self-consciously structured. All the stories explore similar issues of Jewish belief and life.

The Siamese twin story, entitled “The Tenth,” follows the classic short story convention of evoking a “disturbance of the ordinary” that challenges orthodoxy and individual assumptions and hovers on the blurry line between reality and the fabulous.

“The Seventh Year” is about a 70-year-old Jerusalemite who, although not particularly religious, is caught up in the meaning of the commandment in Leviticus that every seventh year the land of Israel be allowed to rest—which allows Leegant to explore the belief that periodically it is good to simply stop “doing” and “be.”

In “How to Comfort the Sick and Dying,” an ex-drug dealer turned yeshiva student, seeks redemption from an unscrupulous past by tending to a dying AIDS patient. In “Meziovsky,” a Jewish man identifies with a Russian immigrant neighbor and finds him a job. And in “The Diviners of Desire: A Modern Fable,” a butcher and the husband of a matchmaker conspire to bring together a young woman and a visiting graduate student. This last has so many echoes of Bernard Malamud’s classic story “The Magic Barrel” that it could be a tribute.

What kind of stories are these? They are well-written, thoughtful, serious, literary stories. Such stories deserve thoughtful, serious readers. I wrote Ms. Leegant, expressing my hope that she has not deserted the short story for the more popular and respected novel form


Anonymous said...

I'm a great fan of your blog, Charles, and try to check in whenever I can to see what I can learn. On the question of why writers like stories more than readers. This is something I'm pondering myself at the moment. I'm working on a PhD and although the question isn't the main focus it is one I keep returning to. I wonder if it has to do with Frank Kermode's suggestion that, at root, the purpose of fictions is to give comfort, a comfort that is drawn from the completive sense of an ending. Short stories often - despite the critical noise about epiphany and unity of effect and design etc - resist that completion, yielding up their answers in more complex ways. Long ago, Woolf talked about the uncomfortable feeling brought on by reading Chekhov's stories: the reader left hanging, searching for an answer. I wonder if it's as simple as the fact that a lot of readers want that comfort and expressly don't want to be left hanging. As for the critics: can I just go ahead and suggest they might be daunted? I read an interview with David Means a little while ago, in which he said that the attraction of the story is the freedom it offers to operate in different modes. For the critic, I imagine that freedom can come to seem a curse. Any given writer, any given collection, operating on however many narrative levels makes a critical position difficult to adopt with any certainty. I know from my experience - and I'm trying to work in a very narrow field - that any attempt to draw a cohesive strain is fraught with complications. I'd very much like to hear your own conclusions when you come to them.

Charles E. May said...

Philip, thank you so much for your comment. Your phrase "yielding up their answers in more complex ways" is, of course, the key. The most complex questions are those that have no answers, don't you think? And the "more complex ways" within which the short story operates has something to do with the mystery of motivation and the method of metaphor,at least, it seems to me. It's the relationship between metaphor and motivation that I am working on now, but that's only part of the story. It also has something to do with how the short story's careful construction, both macrocosmically and microcosmically, probes the basic human mysteries. I know this is all vague stuff, but I will be happy to share my findings with you when I have something in more helpful form. Thanks for your interest in my blog.