Four Must-Have Story Collections: Beagle, Ducornet, Lennon, and Yellin
The best short story collections tend to share common virtues through precision and compression wedded to eccentricity and a unique voice, passion chained to discipline, and startling imagination tempered by a dedication to characterization. Four great recent collections--by Peter S. Beagle, Rikki Ducornet, J. Robert Lennon, and Tamar Yellin--exemplify the importance of these qualities. Two of these collections also take the idea of cohesion a step further by consisting of story cycles that form a larger whole, much as Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin can be taken as either a collection or a kind of mosaic novel. Any one of these books will provide readers with multiple pleasures as summer opens up before us...
We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle - I first encountered Beagle's fiction in the form of his amazing novel A Fine and Private Place. This touching ghost story takes place primarily in a cemetery and displays some of the author's trademarks: empathy, a deeply humanistic approach, and a supple style that can accommodate comedy and tragedy equally well. Since then, Beagle has written several iconic novels, including The Last Unicorn, although these longer works tend to be few and far between. Beagle's true strength in the last few years lies with his short fiction, an area in which he's been both prolific and brilliant. His latest collection, from Tachyon Publications, showcases the best of his recent output. One of my favorite stories, "The Last and Only" details an American's discovery that he's become the last living true Frenchman. The story has elements of both the short story and the more stylized tale, perhaps even a kind of modern fable. The details of the librarian's transformation, triggered, Beagle playfully suggests, by a dormant virus picked up when he and his wife honeymooned in Paris fifteen years before, are exhaustively conveyed, and in their complexity form a kind of thicket around the character. Although there's humor in "The Last and Only," it's bifurcated between satire and the whimsical, then deepened by the more serious implications of the change. Full-on tales like "King Pelles the Sure" are just as entertaining. I kept remembering the pleasures of childhood reading of writers like Ray Bradbury, and in that sense, and being more or less of that generation, Beagle is a throw-back to the kind of iconic American storyteller whose writing reflected a kind of nuanced gentleness and nostalgia without being sentimental. As Charles de Lint notes in his introduction, "There's a timelessness to even his most contemporary stories that will not allow them to seem quaint fifty years from now." (Also check out his previous collection, The Line Between.)
The One Marvelous Thing by Rikki Ducornet - The wild card in this deck, Ducornet can lay rightful claim to being one of North America's preeminent surrealists. Her novels and stories often seem like an unholy amalgamation of Jorge Luis Borges and Angela Carter, but she is sui generis in her particular combination of passion and precision, the strange muscular delicacy with which she approaches her writing. In her latest collection, that sensibility is supplemented in true eccentric fashion by the illustrations of T. Motley (who may well be a pseudonym for Ducornet, since she is also an artist). Sometimes the drawings adorn the stories and sometimes they take a larger role in the narrative. The tales are mostly short and tend to share a quality of exuberance. Take, for example, the opening of "The Wild Child": "In those years when I bounded about on all fours and on my elbows fled those I feared; when, in those lucent days I scaled trees fast as a cat and sailed the treetops as the squirrels do...I was, I assure you, a better creature for all that, my desires innocent and private..." Other stories have a tamer quality, if imbued with the same sort of delight--such as "Koi," which describes the fantasies of a summer program director at a college, and "The Author in Estonia," which details a conversation between a writer and a reviewer. There's nothing particularly disciplined about The One Marvelous Thing--it's a collection that hangs together on the strength of the writer's imagination rather than any more coherent organizing principle. It veers and careens from rogues to heroes, the mundane to the miraculous. At times, it reads like graffiti on a wall and at others like some precious jewel embedded in a chandelier at Versailles. However, The One Marvelous Thing is also gloriously alive, full of risk-taking and manic invention--another winner from the formidable Dalkey Archive Press, unfortunately lost in the shuffle due to a late December 2008 release.
Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon - At first glance J. Robert Lennon's extraordinary collection of short-shorts from Graywolf Press (first published in the U.K. in 2005) appears to share an affinity with the comfortable qualities of Beagle's collection. But from beneath the seemingly calm surface of Lennon's prose disturbing things soon rise. In writing interlocking vignettes set in a fictional upstate New York town he has created a kind of three-dimensional, modern version of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities by way of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. By the book's end, the reader has built up a complex and multi-faceted view of the town and the people in it. The beginnings of these pieces bear noting, in that they're often understated and can encompass both tragedy and humor in the same phrase. "Copycats" opens with "Our town is famous for its deep, beautiful mountain gorges spanned by one-lane bridges, and it is from these bridges that local would-be suicides typically jump." The ironic juxtaposition of standard tourist-pamphlet description met by the information that these very same locations work nicely for the despairing creates a kind of grim humor while also making a comment on the town. Over and over, Lennon creates these kinds of juxtapositions, in a span of just a few words; much of the subtlety comes from that ability to turn on a dime and take a sentence or a paragraph somewhere unexpected, or at least different. Lennon provides additional reader pleasure by dividing the anecdotes into seven sections: Town and Country, Mystery and Confusion, Lies and Blame, Work and Money, Parents and Children, Artists and Professors, and Doom and Madness. It's impressive to encounter Lennon's short work after having read and loved his latest novel, Castle. Between that book's neo-Gothic qualities and this collection's evocation of a small town, I'd say that Lennon is one of our foremost chroniclers of "ordinary" Americans--and he does so with a kind of intrepid matter-of-fact quality to his skewed world view that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts.
Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes by Tamar Yellin - I must confess that I saw the manuscript of this collection long before the author had published any books--I loved it then, and I love it now. Yellin's initial hard road to publication may have been due to the subtle way in which her fictions build from merely nuanced situations into passionate and complex narratives. They require your concentration and a certain stillness, and in this sense share some an affinity with the work of the sublime Marcel Proust. Yellin is also totally devoted to character, so that her stories resonate in the mind long after having read them. Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, from Toby Press, takes its cue from the legend of the ten tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrians and lost to the pages of history. It follows a wandering narrator who encounters a series of people with secret lives, ambitions, or torments. In one story, the romance of an uncle's endless travels turn out to disguise a life of failure; and yet the story is oddly hopeful in that something about the very nature of travel creates hope. Other tales include that of a student who may be invisible and a man who obsessively rewrites a book he may never finish. I hate to use clichéd words like "beautiful" and "luminous" and "haunting" to describe the interlinked stories in this collection, but I can't think of better descriptors. No one writes better sentences than Yellin, either: "She would think then, even though she was getting older, that one day she would really board that mythical boat; and a truly ecstatic moment would run through her, especially at night, when the white lips of the waves crawled towards the shore and the distant lights of vessels winked out of an insubstantial darkness." The Ten Lost Tribes is fully the equal of Yellin's brilliant novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher, which won a $100,000 literary prize, and her first collection, the rather stunning Kafka In Bronteland and Other Stories. If you haven't yet experienced her work, this new collection is a good place to start.