Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Angel on the Roof (Russell Banks)

I bought The Angel on the Roof a few years ago, based mainly on a Banks story I’d heard on This American Life and really liked (“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” as it turns out). Although I pulled it down and dipped into it from time to time, mostly it sat on my shelf and shamed me for never getting around to reading it all the way through.*

Well, finally the shame has ended. In The Angel on the Roof, Banks collects what he feels are the best stories from throughout his career along with nine new ones—thirty-one altogether. Unsurprisingly, the later stories tend to be the most most fully realized, and a few of my favorites, like “Djinn” and “Lobster Night,” the first and last stories as presented here, were among the new ones. Banks has ordered them more thematically than chronologically, and a few recurrent places and characters—a particular New Jersey trailer park and its eccentric inhabitants, a boy rejected by his father who drifts down to South America to fight with Che Guevara—thread through the collection in a series of loosely linked episodes. The stories themselves are largely concerned with the daily lives of working-class New Englanders, although a few venture off into weirdly comic/experimental territory. (“The Caul,” for example, is a second-person story where “you” are Edgar Allan Poe, trying to come to terms with being, quote, “Edgar Poe, author of ‘The Raven.’”)

In an introduction and author’s note, Banks also considers his motivations for telling stories along with some of the better thoughts I’ve read on the distinct pleasures and limitations offered by short stories and novels:

When I began writing, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose closets to lyric poetry. In the intervening years, I’ve written a dozen or so novels, but the story form thrills me still. It invites me today, as it did back then, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, more broadly comic than is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise. The novel, in order to exist at all, accrues, accretes, and accumulates itself in small increments, like a coral reef, and through that process invites from its creator leisurely, circumambulatory exploration. By contrast, stories are like perfect waves, if one is a surfer. Stories forgive one’s mercurial nature, reward one’s longing for ecstasy, and make of one’s short memory a virtue.

The linked nature of many of the stories and the inclusion of the novella-length “The Guinea Pig Lady” make me suspect that Banks is more suited for (or at least more comfortable with) long-form fiction; compared with stories by writers whose talents seem to fall squarely in the realm of short stories—Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Jim Shepard, and Tobias Wolff come to mind—the stories collected here have a certain looseness to them, and lack the bite and piercing clarity that a great story from any of those five writers has. So while I enjoyed reading Angel, and I’ll have to get around to trying out some of Banks’s novels one of these days, this one isn’t going to unseat, say, Birds of America, Love and Hydrogen, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, or The Night in Question from atop my list of favorite story collections.

*See also: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Borges’s Collected Fictions, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m getting to them, I swear!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Alice Stories (Jesse Lee Kercheval)

Calling The Alice Stories a collection of linked short stories doesn’t really give a good sense of it—it’s really more of a novel in a stories, following its main character over the course of decades, from graduate student in Wisconsin, to San Francisco and Germany, back to Wisconsin, through marriage and children. It really manages to get the best of both forms: the relatively self-contained, evocative episodes of the short stories, accumulating into something that doesn’t quite have the weight of a proper novel, but certainly ends up in the general vicinity.

The stories themselves are a thorough pleasure to read, generous and funny even in the darker stories. From the first story, “Alice in Dairyland”:*

I stuck my left foot in the tub. The hot water burned like hell. “Jo Beth has a gun,” I said.

“Gun?” He pronounced the n very carefully, as if he thought maybe what I had said was gum. Watch out, Jo Beth has gum.

Hehe. Or (because I’m a sucker for a good simile), describing the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake in the apartment of Alice’s brother, Mark:

The furniture, which Mark had inherited from our mother, was all on castors—Mom, who’d worked long and hard at becoming a typical American housewife, had had an irrepressible German mania for vacuuming under things—and the earthquake had sent it all rolling like boxcars across the clean parquet floor through the arch and into Mark’s study. The couch and table huddled with his desk like scared livestock.

Funny, vivid, and true—my favorite, and an apt description for the entire book.

(Full disclosure: Jesse Lee was co-chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when I was there, and I know for a fact that she’s awesome, a great writer, and a first-rate teacher. So there.) (Also, while I’m at it, I’m throwing in a plug for my thesis advisor Judy Mitchell’s excellent novel The Last Day of the War. Hi coach!)

*Which, as we just learned the other day, is an actual job title with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Who knew?