Friday, October 05, 2007

In Case We're Separated by Alice Mattison

This past weekend, Stephen King, writing in the New York Times Book Review asks “What Ails the Short Story?” “The American short story is alive and well,” he begins, then continues “Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were true.” King claims mixed health for the short story, but is excited about the stories chosen (by him) for the Best American Short Stories of 2007, of which he is the editor. He does complain, however, that many short stories read like they were written for an audience that consists of “other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines.” Later he says these stories seem to be written “for editors and teachers rather than for readers.” He attributes this problem to the shrinking audience for short stories; almost no one reads short stories in magazines any more, he says, especially in literary magazines.

I want Stephen King to know that the audience for short stories has recently grown by one – this volume by Alice Mattison is the fifth collection I’ve read this year. However, I would agree with him on the charge that very few people buy literary magazines. I know I don’t, and I also almost never read the short stories that appear in magazines such as The New Yorker. King does make a good advocate for his Best American Short Stories of 2007, though, and I think I will give that a try.

The connected stories in In Case We’re Separated encompass fifty years in the life of an extended family in Brooklyn (and further afield). The stories have a gritty realism that I associate with stories about urban life, especially urban life in the mid-20th century when many of these stories take place. The characters in these stories are mostly first generation Americans, living in crowded apartments, still adjusting to life in America. Some reviewers compare the stories in this book to those written by Grace Paley, but I was reminded of more contemporary stories and novels by Binnie Kirschenbaum. The writing is excellent, the characters are extremely realistic, and the observations are keen. I really enjoyed these stories.

The author also features several recurring themes within the stories, which brings me to my next topic, King’s comment that many modern stories seem to be written “for editors and teachers.” At the end of this volume of stories is a note from the author telling us that the stories were crafted according to the dictates of a double sestina, a complicated poetic form that requires recurring words or themes for each stanza (or in this case, each story) which must repeat in a prescribed order. Wow, tricky. Did I miss this? Yes, I did, even though one of the stories in the middle of the book is called Brooklyn Sestina, and it describes the form. I did NOT miss all the recurring themes, however, though some are more obvious than others. Only someone familiar with the sestina and its variations would have noticed that the author did this, someone like an English teacher, or a poet, for example. So is King right? Is Alice Mattison, by employing a complicated poetic form, seeking to gain the admiration of other writers and professors, the only people likely to notice (and by King’s assessment, the only people reading short stories)? Or did she just take this route as a way of challenging herself as a writer? I don’t know. But it’s interesting.

(Book 43, 2007)


Anonymous said...

I enjoy layered meanings and such, and think that some forms and tricks that might only be noticed or appreciated by those 'in the trade' can be successfully worked in without making a story inaccessible to the general public, given a good enough writer. However, certainly some writers do get caught up in the trickery of what they're trying to accomplish, and in doing so narrow their own audience. So, I believe it depends wholly on the individual author as to whether such conceits constitute writing for writers.

Becky Holmes said...

Heather, I agree. I think this author did a good job of not distracting or alienating us with her use of the device, but on the other hand, she was so subtle with it that I missed it. What a shame to go to all that work, only to have it go right over your audience's head!

Anonymous said...

I read this post wondering, But who is Alice Mattison, and why would she separate us?

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed these stories. Like you, Becky, I have been reading about a book a week for many years, literary fiction predominently, and have recently been taken in by short stories. Whehter you catch on to the sestina form or not, the
repetitive objects in the stories are a pleasure to find as are the connections between the characters and all of us. I am glad I found your blog and intend to return frequently.

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