Margaret Atwood, others explore the short-story cycle
On one hand, you have novels. On the other, you have short stories. But is the split that clear-cut? If the world of books has taught us anything lately, it’s that widely held boundaries—between self-publishing and the establishment, cliché and rejuvenation, even one genre and the next—have become blurred.
Granted, most of those things have overlapped to some degree in the past. Case in point: novels and short-story collections. In September, Margaret Atwood—celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddamn Trilogy (the latter of which is being adapted by director Darren Aronofsky for HBO)—saw the release of her latest short-story collection, Stone Mattress. It comprises nine stories that embody the quirky yet profound tone Atwood has been mastering for decades, full of fantastic situations grounded in poignancy, humor, and the entanglements of desire.
What’s especially interesting about Stone Mattress, though, is the book’s first three stories: “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady.” While listed on the table of contents as individual tales, the trio connects to form a single, if short, novel of roughly 100 pages. In those pages, a group of friends try to navigate the transgressions and regrets of their collective past. The linked tales also spotlight fictional works of literature that exist within the universe Atwood has created. Alphinland is the name of a spectacularly popular fantasy novel series written by one of the characters, C. W. Starr (a cheeky spoof of J. K. Rowling); the Dark Lady suite is a series of romantic poems written by Starr’s late husband, Gavin Putnam. The device is playfully meta, but it also underscores how storytelling often can’t—and often shouldn’t—be neatly tied up in discreet little parcels.
This isn’t the first time Atwood has toyed with the short-story cycle. Her 2006 book Moral Disorder is composed entirely of linked short stories, in this case revolving around a single character. It’s more episodic than anything else, a novel in all but name, told in a sequence of staggered vignettes. And Atwood is far from the only writer who has made the most of this between-the-lines format. Nobel laureate Alice Munro did so, most evocatively in her 1978 book The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose; Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for her 2008 book Olive Kitteridge, which was so confident about its hybrid format that its subtitle is A Novel in Stories. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas leans more toward novel than short-story cycle, but it’s structured in a similar way (if far more intricately). To a degree, so is his new masterpiece, The Bone Clocks, as well as Haruki Murakami’s 2000 book After the Quake. Heck, even actor Molly Ringwald applies the template to her 2012 fiction debut, When It Happens To You, albeit in a slightly less involved way than, say, Strout. That said, Ringwald does swipe Strout’s “A Novel in Stories” tagline—or perhaps that’s just a happy coincidence.
Even as Atwood’s Stone Mattress hits the shelves (or the Kindle, as the case may be), a handful of other new books are dipping into the short-story cycle. On Oct. 28, Atwood’s fellow Canadian author, Gemma Files, will see the release of her latest book, We Will All Go Down Together. It’s a vivid, haunting mix of horror and fantasy woven together through a complex fugue of short stories. The effect is powerful. It’s a book you have to work hard at, in order to make sure you’re not missing any of the peripheral connections. But it rewards the effort, and then some. The paperback edition of Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka—originally published in hardcover earlier this year—comes out next month, and like Atwood’s new triptych, it looks at the bond between readers and authors (in this case, Kafka) even as it forms its own bonds from story to story.
But perhaps the most intriguing recent example of the blurred lines between novels and short stories is Beautiful Blood. Released this summer, it’s the final and posthumous novel by the late Lucius Shepard, who died in March. Beautiful Blood is a irrefutably a novel—but it completes a series of interlinked short stories he’d been publishing sporadically for decades, which were previously collected in a volume titled The Dragon Griaule. The overarching premise is as simple as it is striking: The mythic city of Teocinte is built against the body of a gargantuan dragon named Griaule, a creature that’s been sleeping for so long, hardly anyone cares or seems to remember that it might waken at any time and destroy them all. It’s a metaphor, of course, for everything from building a metropolis along a major geological fault (like San Francisco) to propping up an entire civilization on fossil fuels. Apart from being a poetic alternative to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the story-cycle of Beautiful Blood and The Dragon Griaule show just how effectively a narrative can be rolled out in tantalizing bits and pieces.
Most famously and recently, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 2011, A Visit from the Goon Squad, straddled the invisible divide between novel and short-story collection. It does so with such agility that many still don’t know how to classify it. The funny thing is, you don’t need to slap a label on A Visit from the Goon Squad, or any short-story cycle, to enjoy it. The format may confound certain people, or at least those who obsessively pigeonhole things—but the whole idea of linked, episodic narratives is universal, stretching from The Canterbury Tales to David Copperfield to, well, Breaking Bad. In a sense, reading a series of connected short stories all at once is no different than binge-watching your favorite cable TV drama. And it can be equally satisfying.
As consumers of stories, we gobble down short-story cycles instinctively. And when executed well, these cycles feel organic. Our own lives follow such a cadence; perhaps humanity always has. And while literature doesn’t have to mimic life to be great, the effort to adopt these seemingly choppy rhythms—the way our minds and bodies flit from place to place and time to time, and the way memory patches it all together—can serve books like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Stone Mattress well. The three-story arc that takes up the first third of Atwood’s new book may not be labeled a novel, or ultimately viewed as one. But it serves the same purpose—to tinker with fiction and synch it up to the sparking of our brains, and maybe even the ebb and flow of our souls.