Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Novel to be Read as a Short Story: Elizabeth Strout's "My Name is Lucy Barton"

As many of you who have been following my thoughts on "reading the short story" over the years know, I usually only read novels under special circumstances: for example, when someone is paying me to review one (which is seldom), when one gets such a lot of attention I just have to know what the fuss is about (which is rare), or when I am just too lazy or exhausted to read a good short story (which is occasional). This past Sunday it was the latter circumstance that led me to a novel I previously had no intention of reading.
I had not been feeling well—some transient bug or another that left me drained of energy, reduced to lounging on the couch.  My wife had just finished reading Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, which had only taken her about two hours, and it was just lying there on the coffee table, waiting to go back to the local library.
I had read Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a collection of thirteen loosely linked stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years ago, and was not impressed, although I was pleased that the Pulitzer judges had graciously grant the prize to a collection of short stories, which they seldom do. I am suspicious of collections of short stories "linked" together and packaged by publishers as a novel. And the character Olive in Strout's stories seemed just that—a set-up surrounded by various other characters to reveal her supposed hidden nature.
However, Best American Short Stories 2013, which Elizabeth Strout edited, was one of the best of the Best I had read in many years. I wrote at that time: "If you love short stories, you will relish this collection; however, if you prefer novels, or if you just never got the hang of reading short stories, you may want to pass it by." I congratulated Elizabeth Strout for choosing stories that read--for better or worse, depending on your perspective--like short stories unified by a complex theme, not like loose, randomly-arranged chapters of novels.
Furthermore, the fact that my wife had read Lucy Barton  in only two hours (and she is not a skimmer, but a careful reader) made me think that perhaps it was not a novel at all, but rather a novella. In the Random House hardback, it is190 pages, and the pages have much more white space than large black letters—wide margins and double spaces between the lines.
I did a quick estimate—25 lines per page of approximately 8 words per line equals 200 words, which then equals just about 38,000 words. I checked the various critics in the past who dared tentative definitions based on the relationship of length to terminology, and they generally agreed that a novella, short novel, novelette, nouvelle, novelle—whatever they called that thing longer than a short story but shorter than a novel--was usually somewhere between 20,000 to 50,000 words.
While I was pondering whether I wanted to spend two hours of a spring Sunday afternoon reading a novel by someone I had not found that interesting as a short-story writer, but who seemed to really know what good short stories were, I picked up the Los Angeles Times and read the following opening paragraph of a review by A.N. Devers of a new novel by Max Porter entitled Grief is the Thing With Feathers:
"You can't judge a book by its thickness. It is time to retire the diminutive words often call upon to describe shorter novels and novellas and works of nonfiction—slim, spare, compact, jewel of a, or worse, quick, fast, tight, little, anything that suggests a book is missing something in length or heft—for the underlying (perhaps unintentional) implication is that the book is a simpler or speedier read or that it was somehow easier to write."
Devers concludes her favorable review by saying that Porter's book is a complex story, not simply told or sparse, and missing nothing. "Let it be a call for more great books of this length to be recognized for what they are—whole." Well, yes, indeed, thank you, Ms. Devers. I will read this book for what you say it is—a novella—not an abbreviated novel.
I  then took a look at some reviews of Strout's Lucy Barton, and damn all! the first one I came across was a "Bottom Line" piece on the Huffington Post, which  concluded:
"My Name is Lucy Barton is a slight novel, easily consumed in one sitting, and Strout's prose is light, clear, and deliberate, ever offering the telling detail but no more than that.  Yet at times one can't help but wish there was more story to tell, though she continues to tell this one very skillfully."
Well, now my interest was aroused.  Any time a fiction gets scolded for being too short, I want to read it.  So I did.  And two hours later I decided that Strout's new book was indeed a novella—in other words, not a novel that was short, but rather a short story that was long. Which for me means a piece of fiction that must be read as one reads a short story, not as one reads a novel.  And if you read My Name is Lucy Barton as a long short story, you will not "wish there was more story to tell," but be glad that Elizabeth Strout is not interested in merely spinning out a novelistic narrative, but in creating a complete and unified story.
Although the term "novella" is used to refer both to the short pieces of fourteenth-century fiction best exemplified by Boccaccio's Decameron and the highly-developed nineteenth-century German form, it is more often used in the twentieth century to refer to a number of works of mid-range length, somewhat longer than the short story and somewhat shorter than the novel.   In his Preface to "The Lesson of the Master," Henry James says  that among forms there was "on the dimensional ground-for length and breadth—our ideal, the beautiful and blest nouvelle; the generous, the enlightened hour for which appeared thus at last to shine."
James argues that that the nouvelle's “main merit and sign is the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.” The comment has led to the observation that the novella has the novel’s complexity and the short story’s control.   But my question is: Is the “complexity” of the novella the same kind of complexity that usually characterizes the novel?  And is the “control” of the novella the same kind of control that usually characterizes the short story
Based on my reading of hundreds of novels and novellas and thousands of short stories, I believe that the novella is closer to the short story both in theme and technique than it is to the novel.  So, for me the question is not what makes the short novel shorter than the novel, but what makes the novella longer than the short story. To run the risk of oversimplification, I would hazard the following tentative distinctions.  The complexity of the novel is primarily social, historical, and cultural.  The complexity of the novella is primarily psychological, mythical, and philosophical The novella is a form that, at its best, is closer in style, structure, and theme to the short story than it is to the novel.
And from my point of view, there is a difference between a novella and simply a novel that is short. For example, whereas Andre Dubus III's short novels in his collection Dirty Love are merely novels that are short—just lots of "as if" real stuff about semi-interesting characters living in what seems like a "real world," Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, although marketed as a novel, is best read as if it were a short story—that is, as a novella.
The stories in Dubus's Dirty Love are not short fiction at its best; they reaffirm critical opinion that there is little danger Andre Dubus III will be called a "writer's writer," which is probably just fine with him, for he writes in a grittier, more realistic, digressive novelistic style than the lyrical, tightly woven poetic style of his father, one of the great short-story writers of the 20th century. These four works of fiction are more like "short novels" than novellas.
However, although Brooklyn reads like a novel throughout most of its length, somewhere along the way, everything seems to tighten and pull together—not like a novel, but like a short story—and the reader is thrown back to the whole of the story and made to see everything in a new light—the precise, poetic style of the work, the careful creation of a literary world with a rhythm of reality all its own.  The story is not a realistic novel about a particular woman in a particular time and particular place, but rather a lyrical tale about the universal dilemma of anyone who is displaced, tries to go home again but cannot, returns to the displacement, and finds out that neither the old home nor the new home feels like “home.”  Brooklyn is a classic story of homesickness, a story that does not simply give a particular example, but rather explores and defines the complexity of that kind of loneliness. 
Many readers and critics may very well fuss that generic terminology matters little or not at all, noting that “a rose by any other name” blah, blah, blah,", 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.” 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.
Readers and reviewers who read Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton as if it were a novel might very well be dissatisfied by the book's "shortness"—might indeed wish there were more details about Lucy's life, some context (for context is an important concept to young assistant professors trying to collect vitae fodder these days) to account for the experience that shimmers at the center of this purposely small book.
But readers familiar with how short stories work will notice right away that the very tone of the voice we hear establishes a parable-like rhythm, beginning "There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks."  We do not know what physically ails Lucy, for that is not important, for what ails here is what ails us all—loneliness, mystery about our isolation. As Lucy says, "To begin with, it was a simple story." But of course, it is the central story of all life, which her mother's stories and her memories remind her of throughout.
Lucy's creative writing teacher Sarah Payne tells her: "You'll write your one story many ways.  Don't ever worry about story.  You have only one." And by this, she does not mean, as one reviewer suggests, the "inverse of the old saw that everyone has a novel in them," but rather the human central story that Payne states most explicitly when she tells her students to go to the page without judgment and reminds them that they "never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully."
Lucy thinks this seems like a simple thought, "but as I get older I see more and more that she had to tell us that.  We think, always we think, What is it about someone that makes us despise that person, that makes us feel superior?"
Everything in My Name is Lucy Barton reflects on this one story—the one human story that I have observed in the short story in everything I have written about it over the years. It is why Frank O'Connor famously said "there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness." It is why I titled my last book about the short story I Am Your Brother.
One of the many references to this motif of loneliness in Strout's book is Lucy's description of the statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that engages her with both love and anguish. It is Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's "Ugolino and His Sons, "which depicts Dante's description of Count Ugolino, sentenced to starve to death. Ugolino looks at the faces of his sons surrounding him and in grief bites his own hands:
"And suddenly from the floor arising they,
Thinking my hunger was the cause of it,
Exclaimed: Father eat thou of us, and stay
Our suffering: thou didst our being dress
In this sad flesh; now strip it all away."
Lucy reads the placard that explains that the children are offering themselves as food for their father to make his distress disappear. "They will allow him—oh, happily, happily—to eat them.  And I thought, So that guy knew.  Meaning the sculptor. He knew.  And so did the poet who wrote what the sculptor has shown.  He knew too."
And what do they all know?  The one story that all short story writers know--the story of loneliness and the yearning to find the self by losing the self in the other.


Ann Graham said...

Thank you so much for all of your comments about short stories, novellas, and novels. Certainly, true for me in my experiences of reading short stories. I don't read novels but in my writing group some people are working on novels and it is painful for me to read their novel chapters, not because of their lack of skill but my lack of being able to easily read the way a novel requires.

Margaret said...

Thank you for this, Charles. I will try to read Strout's book over the weekend. I would enjoy hearing about other novels you believe can be read as short stories. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping comes to mind--would you agree?

One Hour Device said...

There is much more. Lucy Barton is the first-person narrator. She proceeds in a deadpan, conversational manner, without a trace of self-consciousness. She pieces little episodes together almost like a mosaic. Not only, then, is MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON a remarkably rich novel for its 191 pages, it also is very finely crafted.