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Short Tales on a Tight Rein

By (January 1, 2015) No Comment

Bright Shards of Someplace Else
By Monica McFawn
University of Georgia 2014

shardsThe contemporary short story collection functions as a type of stunt double in relation to the contemporary American novel: relatively invisible despite being the more daring, less glamorous twin, the reckless avatar that enables the frequently placid conventionality of the other. Monica McFawn’s Bright Shards of Someplace Else is one such story collection, each of its eleven stories posturing like a dare accepted.

McFawn’s written a good first collection, slightly uneven as collections tend to be, but spiked with enough shards of sharp writing and interesting conceits that I finished the book wondering what she will come up with in her next book, which is probably the most satisfying feeling after finishing an author’s debut story collection: another writer to set up a Google alert for.

The main characteristic of McFawn’s stories is that they are extremely tight, by which I mean that there is no sense of looseness, either in language or detail. Each phrase, detail, and aspect of narrative setting feels highly chosen and deliberate. For instance, each story has a strictly constrained time duration. “Key Phrases” lasts the span of a day. “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a story about a babysitter getting her preteen charge to make various painful phone calls for her, lasts a single evening. “Dead Horse Productions” spans perhaps a couple of hours. A result of this compressed timeline is that the stories feel both charged with meaning and also slightly contrived—everything meaningful happens in such quick succession—but this duality is not entirely unpleasurable.

The collection’s best story is “Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge.” The story is about Snippet, a horse rescued by two women, Marti and Judy, who run Heart’s Journey, an equine rescue nonprofit, where they attempt to rehabilitate and save horses from slaughter. Snippet has suffered a disastrous broken leg and is headed for “the Rainbow Bridge,” the duo’s name for animal heaven. Each partner, realizing Snippet’s condition, calls their preferred big animal veterinarian, and the story consists entirely of the two veterinarians’ journey out to the farm. That might not sound like much, but the result is a thrilling quadruple character study that feels almost like an Alice Munro story in its combination of confident rural detail, thrilling deployment of time, and general disdain for the pressures of conventional narrative. Everything in this story feels both unexpected and perfectly chosen, and it showcases some of McFawn’s best writing:

A chicken wanders into the feed room, moving to the beat of its clucks, turning its head and giving her a deeply skeptical look, its ruff of red-gold feathers fissuring as it drops its head to peck at the floor. Marti reaches down and brushes her fingers over its comb; it feels to her like the hand of a limp doll.

And here is Judy thinking back to the beginnings of Heart’s Journey:

She wants to return to the illogic at the base of the enterprise, when they stood among all kill buyers, the slaughter-truck drivers, the farmers with the Skoal-can circles on their back pockets, the married Amish men with their heavy beards, gravely nodding, as if speech itself were too newfangled.

McFawn is also strikingly evocative whenever she describes horses: “The mare is tall and chestnut, with an excessive femininity to her face—long lashes, big, quivery eyes, fine ears, and a buttery muzzle. Deborah [a person] has the same kind of look, with jutting plump lips that seem to tussle, as if playfully trying to mount one another.” At times, the writing reminds me of Annie Proulx, minus the eviscerating cynicism.

Another good story, “The Chautauqua Sessions,” partakes of a more leisurely time structure than the other stories. Its plot consists of a handful of days narrator Danny spends at his friend Levi’s cabin in remote Appalachian Tennessee. Danny is the long-estranged lyricist for singer Levi. The pair had a series of hits in the 1970s. They’ve reunited to see if they can write music together again, following a long hiatus which was caused in part by Danny’s son, Dee, who has been battling drug addiction for years. Though a sketch of its plot makes it sound like a VH1 special, McFawn makes it much more human. Here’s Danny riffing on the Levi’s frontman charm:

Levi, for all his sophistication as a performer and musician, is a strangely guileless man, the kind of person whose brilliance, you might say, comes from that ability to be seduced, to emotionally connect with anyone and anything. No matter what he sings, he finds something beautiful and authentic within the words. I’ve always seen him as a kind of idiot savant, a brilliant, complex performer unburdened by actually being brilliant or complex.

Of course, Dee shows up the first night at Chautauqua claiming that he has kicked his addictions after a bender that ended with him saving someone’s life. The father is of course completely unconvinced, but Levi and his live-in cook Lucinda both are. What follows is an increasingly desperate series of maneuvers on the part of the father to illustrate that the son really is a no good piece of crap. Eventually he begins to steal objects from the house in order to frame the son. It sounds cheesy but the reader partakes of his increasing paranoia and sense of betrayal. And of course Dee’s drug lingo and various stoned utterances from across the years have infiltrated his lyrics so that he can hardly exist or function without the specter of his son. He is haunted both by his son’s past transgressions and his too easily won sobriety.

micro fictionThe sense of the collection’s intentional daring is raised further by the inclusion of three extremely short stories, breaking up the rhythm of the longer tales. I’m not sure whether these stories count as “flash fiction” or “micro fiction” or whatever nonce genre has recently been developed out there in the literary mag-o-sphere. They’re simply extremely short, and one of them, “A Country Woman,” is a delight. It has a light, anthropological touch, part Cheever, part Jhumpa Lahiri, and lasts just the right amount.

She is at all the parties. To invite her is to send the message: I can face up to my faults. A kind of sweet torture is to engage her in conversation in a corner after having a few glasses of wine. The country woman speaks of many things: her family, the farm, weather changes, ham hocks, apple butter, the orneriness of old roosters as opposed to the sass of old hens . . . None of it means anything to you—why should it?—but the telling is full of charm and homespun wit. . . . The only recourse is to keep listening until she loses her charm, thereby affirming yours.

But sometimes the tight rein on the stories just feels strangling. “Key Phrases” is about a manager who has been ordered to fire one of her employees, Mol. The entire story consists of the run-up to the firing. For the duration, the narrator catalogs Mol’s sins, both professional and interpersonal. “I could smell Mol’s sweat—I thought I could—it was the smell of a stove burner turned on in an abandoned house, the decades-old dinners coming back in smoke.” The narrator is so mean that everything turns sickly cartoonish. Of course this might very well be the point, but it doesn’t seem to have any payoff. There’s no Nabokovian piercing through the scrim of the narrator’s sensibility to discover the story’s true sympathy. The narrator stalls and so does the story itself.

Other stories feel a little too much like stunts: impressive in their surface complexity but not emotionally gratifying. There are whiffs of a vague George Saundersization in some of these stories, slightly absurd premises that seem lifted from the near future, which in general aren’t prominent enough to drive the stories.

The entire endeavor of story writing is difficult. It’s a shared difficulty between reader and writer—a challenge to the reader’s empathy (so many disparate characters to care for across a collection) and a challenge to the author’s ingenuity (eight to twelve new fictional universes to tend and feed). Perhaps that’s why in some of our best story writers, particularly the ones who write stories almost exclusively (O’Connor, Saunders), there’s a kind of narrowing of subject matter, each iteration a refinement rather than a wholesale reinvention.

What McFawn brings with her first collection is a return of the story collection’s sense of potential, to its ability of wholesale reinvention each handful of pages. Likewise, that’s why it will be so interesting to see what McFawn comes up with next, whether or not it’s another story collection or a novel. Will the aggressive variety of this story collection expand or contract? And most important, will McFawn cover longer spans of time, allowing her characters to breathe in a more relaxed narrative space? Or perhaps McFawn will take these apparent limitations and push them into a governing aesthetic. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.