Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, published in a whopping 128-page hardcover (with lots of white space) by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux two months ago, originally appeared, according to the book’s copyright page “in a slightly different form” in the Paris Review in 2002. The story only took up about 50 pages in the O. Henry Prize Stories: 2003 (where I first read it). It was chosen by O. Henry jurors Jennifer Egan and David Gutterson as their “favorite” of the 20 stories in the volume (Juror Diane Johnson chose A. S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest” as her favorite.”)
The Library Journal review said that Johnson “has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length” and Publishers’ Weekly praised Johnson’s “epic sensibilities rendered in miniature.” So, one might ask, what is a “miniature epic?” Aren’t those two terms contradictory? And why is Train Dreams a novella rather than a short story or a novel? Often these generic terms are a matter of marketing. For example, Jennifer Egan’s very successful book A Visit from the Goon Squad is marketed on its cover very prominently as a “novel.” However, I read it as a collection of short stories. Any time a writer puts together a collection of stories with some links--ala Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, e.g., a shared place or shared characters--publishers are eager to label it a novel and critics are eager to discuss it as a short story-cycle.
It will come as no surprise to those of you who have read my blog even occasionally over the past three years that I have little patience with attempts by the publishing industry to try to make the short story more appealing or the academic industry to make it more worthy of discussion by calling individual stories (like those of Alice Munro) “novelistic, or by calling a collection of stories a “composite novel.” As for what Henry James called the “blest nouvelle,” the kind of fictional narrative that lies in length somewhere in between the “world in a grain of sand” that is the short story and the “bulky monster” that is the novel, I think it is a closer relative to the short story than to the novel. I posted a blog on that form in January 2010, in which I tried to lay out the characteristics that distinguished it both from the short story and the novel.
Many readers and critic may very well argue that such generic terminology matters little or not at all, noting that “a rose by any other name” blah, blah, blah. Whereas publishers will probably say that terminology matters a great deal to how they market their books of fiction, I would argue that it matters a great deal in terms of what kind of experience readers are in for when they pick up a book called “short stories,” “a novella,” or “a novel.” On this point, I would quote again what I cited in my earlier blog on the novella: I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding, or misjudging, it entirely.
Genre is, for me, an important issue because knowing the “kind” of story we read establishes a certain “horizon of expectations” that guides our reading. Certainly, a great writer will not merely follow the conventions of a genre, for then we would call him or her a “genre” writer, the way, for example, Stephen King is a genre writer. Certainly, a great writer will often defeat our expectations, thus extending our previous understanding of what kind of story we are reading. On the other hand, a great writer will seldom completely ignore the tradition from which he or she draws.
Many reviewers have already noted the importance of the genre issue when reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. For example, in his comments on why he chose the story as his favorite in the O. Henry volume, David Gutterson reminds us that the short story does indeed have a tradition, from Poe and Gogol to Borges and George Saunders; he places “Train Dreams in a line of descent that includes tall tales, supernatural yarns, and magical realism—a homage to Bret Harte. He says he admires Johnson’s “skilful blending of forms and traditions.” “Is it a short story?” Gutterson asks. “That’s difficult to say. Perhaps there’s no longer such a category.” Gutterson admires Johnson’s attention to detail in the story, but says its greater power lies in “its visitations, its haunted moments of sadness and yearning in which the world appears otherworldly and aggrieved even while infused with comedy.”
Jennifer Egan also calls attention to the “density of historical detail in the story,” but adds that the story’s “real power lies in its mystery, its reluctance to reveal itself. What is this about?” she says she kept asking herself as she read. David Ulin’s review in The Los Angeles Times also focuses on the key generic issue of the book, calling it a “stoic miniature,” a “portrait of containment, of compression and restraint.” Ulin says that although Johnson evokes the stuff of novels--“the slow passage of time from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul,” he thinks Johnson has something more “elusive in mind, something more fundamental and intense.” What the books evokes, says Ulin, is “the fluid divide between spirit and substance, his sense that the metaphysical is always with us, even if we can’t decipher what it means.” And this, as I have suggested many times in this blog, is the sense of the spiritual that has always been the special realm of the short story and the novella.
Anthony Doerr’s review in The New York Times isolates the generic source of the story’s power most incisively. Doerr says he read the story almost ten years ago when it first appeared in The Paris Review and has read it several times sense. Like Jennifer Egan and others, he has said that the story seems to haunt one long after it is read. He attributes this haunting power to the story’s brevity, citing Poe’s famous statement that, second only to poetry, the form most advantageous for the manifestation of the highest genius was the “short prose narrative” that one could read in one sitting. Novels, Poe felt were objectionable because they necessitated taking breaks in the reading, with “worldly interests” intervening that “modify, annul or counteract” the impressions of the work. Doerr emphasizes that short stories and novellas “offer a chance to affect readers more deeply” than novels because the reader “can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience,” giving them, in Poe’s words, “the immense force derivable from totality.”
James Wood’s reading of the story in The New Yorker is less incisive that those of Ulin and Doerr, but he also finds himself caught in two different realm of reality in “Train Dreams.” First there is what he calls a kind of “clean American simplicity in prose” reminiscent of Hemingway, but he complains that sometimes one longs to “bathe in impurities” of a more abundant style. In other words, he thinks “Train Dreams” is a bit too short, “as if the protagonist’s lack of inwardness were itself a literary virtue.” Doerr, on the other hand, while praising the story’s brevity, complains that occasionally “tufts of seemingly irrelevant material stick out here and there.” But Doerr suggests that the story’s “imperfections somehow make the experience better, more real, more absorbing.” James Wood is able to forgive the clipped style reflective of the protagonist’s unreflective view of the world by noting that his spiritual visions “seem fit compensation for the unreflective, bounded, wordless, and bookless solitude of his existence.”
So what makes Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” work and what makes recognizing its genre as a “blessed nouvelle” important for the reading experience? Just this blend of Poe-like spiritual visions and Chekhov-like precise detail and language. Just this combination of the realistic and the supernatural, the sacred and the profane. Just this seamless linking (and blurring of that line) of the stuff of everyday reality and the stuff of that mysterious world that always exists in our dreams. In short, just the permutation that the short story and its close generic relative, the novella, have always made their own. Go back and re-read Gogol and Turgenev, Poe and Borges. Reread what has been called the “nightmares at noonday” in the stories of Ernest Hemingway. Read Steven Millhauser and Alice Munro. Read Joy Williams, Edith Pearlman, William Trevor, and many more great short story writers. They will all remind you of the importance of the generic tradition of the “short prose narrative” and how Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” both confirms and expands that tradition.