Genres provide a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not
the `solution') of intractable problems, a method for rendering
such problems intelligible.
Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel 20
In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie writes of "a painter whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art. `Look at me,' he said before he killed himself, `I wanted to be a miniaturist and I've got elephantiasis instead'" (50). While the short story as a genre is not equivalent to the miniature, this passage implicitly suggests a nagging dilemma for short story enthusiasts: is there a relationship between narrative length and aesthetic scope? If Rushdie's painter finds it necessary to create a succession of ever-widening canvases in order for him to encapsulate "the whole of life into his art," does this then mean that condensed narratives such as the short story offer a reduced spectrum of human experience when compared with more expanded forms?(1) In order to differentiate between techniques of narrative compression and those that accentuate elaboration and expansion, let us first turn to McKeon's observation that genres crystallize certain philosophical predicaments. One problem explicitly manifested by the short story pertains to the complexity of negotiating temporal experience through narrative. All narratives engage temporality in some way, but short fiction intimates how thoroughly our apprehension of historicity has been conditioned by sequential narrative forms such as the novel. Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the "threshold," a chronotope in which "time is essentially instantaneous ... and falls out of the normal course of biographical time" (248) sets up a useful paradigm for thinking about short fiction's tendency to accentuate a single event, as opposed to the novel's propensity to knit numerous events together in a serial fashion. As we shall see, emphasizing the isolated event over the event-as-series has far-ranging hermeneutical repercussions. Suspending continuity, the short story intimates that the impulse to mold time into a sequential narrative is often incommen-surate with our experience of temporality.(2) Many short stories depict situations where characters are perplexed by a given set of circumstances, circumstances that seem to preclude a mode of interpretation that will allow a mediation back into what Bakhtin calls the "normal course of biographical time," where events are understood through their being integrated into a series.
As a means of making my discussion more concrete, I would like to use William Sansom's short story "The Vertical Ladder," as an illustration to describe short fiction's treatment of temporality. In this story, a young man attempts to impress a young woman by accepting a dare to climb two ladders, a 20-foot wooden ladder that leads to a second, this one attached to a gasworks that towers high above the ground. Most of the story pertains to the character's increasing terror as he painfully works his way to the summit. Close to the apex of the gasworks, after having taken with him the young woman's handkerchief to affix onto the rooftop, he sees that his companions have removed the first ladder and are about to leave him alone. To his horror, at the story's end, the young man discovers that the last rungs of the ladder are missing, which was something that couldn't be perceived from the ground. He can neither complete his quest, nor return to safety:
Flegg stared dumbly, circling his head like a lost animal ... then he
jammed his legs into the lower rungs and his arms past the elbows
to the armpits in through the top rungs and there he hung shivering
and past knowing what more he could ever do ... (original
Alone, paralyzed in a present that seems endless, Flegg; might be said to embody the manner in which short stories suspend the single event from the future and, often, the past.
Further, if we think of "The Vertical Ladder" as an analogy for the short story's exploration of the existential experience of temporality, we can also envision how the reader is affected by the short story's penchant for isolating one event from a concatenation of continuous events. Since the reader of a short story seeks to interpret a narrative that concentrates on the abrupt, the sporadic, the abortive, he or she cannot approach a short story by utilizing the synthesizing effect most novels provide--in terms of their depiction of events--where specific events are mirrored against numerous others. The limited temporal horizon generally experienced by characters in short stories thus overlaps the reader's hermeneutic difficulty in grasping the significance of the events portrayed.
The hermeneutical conception of "Erlebnis" clarifies the short story's approach toward temporality. Strictly translated, Erlebnis means "lived experience," but Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamer develop the term so that it refers to the mind's disinclination to understand experience in a continuous flow. Describing Schleiermacher, Dilthey writes: "Each one of his experiences [Erlebnisse] existing by itself is a separate picture of the universe taken out of the explanatory context" (qtd. in Gadamer 64). I can think of no better description of the short story's mechanics. An isolated moment allures with the possibility of a dialectic between the particular and the general, yet refuses the mediation of what Dilthey calls "explanatory context"--refuses mediation because Erlebnis cannot relinquish the unique specificity of the event, desires mediation because of the fear of epistemological nihilism. Arising out of its exploration of a reduced temporal moment, the genre's fascination with moments of hermeneutic crisis both obstructs interpretation and invites continuous speculation. In what follows, I shall discuss the temporal displacements brought into focus by the short story's rendering of historicity, then I shall move to a wider discussion detailing the form's relation with the reader.
The novel mirrors a revolution that is not material but spiritual. Its
goal is consolation.
Josephine Hendin, Vulnerable People 216
It is the role of the short story to let us know that all news is bad
news, for there can be no final promise nor hope for a reprieve.
Dreams and paradise arc not its domain: the short story emanates
from the earth, from reality, from the transient.
Daniel Boulanger, "On the Short Story" 511
When short story writers discuss their art, they tend to emphasize epistemology. For Charles Baxter, short fiction attends to "a widening of the moment," a practice that is distinct from the "explanatory" mode he associates,with the novel; the short story depends, instead, on "suggestion" (24). Believing that the short story favors a certain epistemological stance, he writes: "it is partly a matter of vision, of where you think reality takes place" (19). Baxter's relating the short story to perception and temporality is common to other writers as well. The short story, for Nadine Gordimer, authentically enacts the "quality" of human cognition: "the short story doesn't deal with cumulatives"; rather, it echoes phenomenological experience in that both are based upon the intermittent, a "flash of fireflies" (180). Although describing the American short story, Thomas M. Leitch neatly summarizes the epistemological position common to short fiction in general: "stories constitute not a form of knowledge, but a challenge to knowledge" (133). Specifically rejecting the novel's inclination to deliberate and expound on reality, short stories "challenge" knowledge by manifesting a skepticism toward totalization and synthesis; that is, by forgoing sequentiality in favor of isolating an event, the genre questions the desire to confer significance upon an event by placing it within a larger, contextualizing pattern.
Human awareness--at a basic level--is largely devoted to synthesis; as we encounter phenomena we attempt to reconcile the unknown with the known. Since one of our most fundamental experiences is the chronological progression of time, we essentially narrativize this experience by linking events into a series. Short stories suggest, however, that transforming events into a continuum has the potential for reducing the "meaning" of an event to its relative significance when an event has been allocated a position in a linear series.
The core of the short story becomes the subjective experience of temporality. Knowledge of death, the absence of foreknowledge based on certainty regarding future events, the memory of past occurrences, the projection of possible future events involving both fear and desire form at any given junction in time the subject's experience of temporality. Similar to Heraclitus's footstep in the river, an event's fleeting horizon, by participating in a kaleidoscopic continuum of flux, is uniquely placed in temporality. The short story's inclination for hovering over one specific temporal horizon affects the ways in which the genre positions itself against the movement of historical progression. According to the short story's rendition of experience (what we have called Erlebnis), an event that follows another in a sequence has an entirely different horizon than its antecedent. While historical knowledge is generally seen to be contingent upon the creation of narratives that relate events to their eventual outcomes, such narratives decontextualize events by extracting them from their initial temporal horizons. History as a discipline is reluctant to regard temporal movement in this manner. As Hayden White argues in his discussion of Johann Gustav Droysen, "the historian's principal task ... is to explicate (erschliessen) the past through an unveiling (Enthullung) and exaltation (Ershliessung) of the present that was latent within it" (94), a methodology that reduces prior events to a subordinate position within a narrative that grants hermeneutic power to the present. The short story posits instead a form of historiography that emphasizes the integrity of the singular event, the autonomy of the moment. Opposed to synoptic assimilation (the method favored by most historians), short stories thus maintain that the narratives we tell ourselves often mask the incongruities of existential experience.
Novels, of course, also frequently concentrate on the manner in which narratives result from the desire to discover the meaning of events by imposing narrative structure(s) upon them. Both Pip in Great Expectations and Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, embroider narratives to interpret the significance of a particularly traumatic event. When Edward W. Said observes that "two things must be available to the novelist: first, the technique of consecutive explanation, and second, the liberty to return to whatever he has already passed over in the narrative sequence" (140-41), he clarifies how Quentin and Pip are ensconced in extended narratives; their respective texts not only refer continuously to the event that served to initiate each narrative, but they convey the suggestion that the narrative subsequently created fails to resolve the past's relation to the present. One might argue that short stories are simply more assiduous than novels in dealing with this problem; that is, rather than engaging in what Said refers to as the repetitive characteristics of the novel, they merely offer narratives that have been honed to the presentation of a single event.(3) However, when Baxter differentiates the novel from the short story, he does so because he believes that there are philosophical differences between the two forms; when he refers to the short story's "widened moment," Baxter is suggesting how the genre, implicitly refusing the explanatory function of viewing events in a series, maintains that "reality" takes place disjunctively. Erlebnis as an elemental condition of knowing takes precedence over the mitigating qualities of sequential narrative discourse. While most novelists would agree that "reality" involves discontinuity, it is apparent that many short story theorists and practitioners believe that engrained in the novel is a desire for totalizing experience, for recasting the incommensurate into an arbitrary continuity.(4)
In his celebrated essay, "The Lonely Voice," Frank O'Connor also speaks about the short story by distancing it from the novel. While some of his observations now seem dated (contemporary novels, for instance, deal with the dilemmas experienced by a "submerged population" group as often as short stories do), O'Connor's study points to the genre's austere--indeed, often melancholic--sensibility. The short story is as elusive for O'Connor as it is for others; what is incisive about his essay is the barely detectable pattern that lies just beyond what he is attempting to articulate. The recurrent "motif" of O'Connor's argument is the short story's tendency to engage thematically "loneliness" and psychological exile: "always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society" (87). O'Connor knows very well that such figures also abound in the novel (Gogol's Akakey Akakeivitch is akin to Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin), but I take O'Connor to mean that surrounding & tale of Gogol's hapless clerk and his overcoat is a tone that distinguishes it from The Idiot. Grasping, in his attempt to differentiate the two forms, O'Connor remarks that "while we read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood," a mood that is similar to Pascal's aphorism: "Le silence eternal de ces espaces infinis m`effraie" (87). O'Connor's evocation of Pascal's "eternal silences" is an insight that illuminates the epistemological and existential concerns associated with the short story.(5)
If the short story, as Baxter suggests, abrogates explanation and commentary, the short story might then be described as that genre which, attempting to open the mind's eye to Pascal's confrontation with nothingness and the Other, refuses to dilute the rendering of that experience with context or continuity. In "The Witness," Jorge Luis Borges imagines the death of the last eyewitness of pre-Christian, Roman Britain: "with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites .... In time there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ" (243). Just as this parable seeks to excise a discrete temporal moment from the contextualizing capacities of a sequential history, the short story attempts to wrest an existential temporal horizon--flashing briefly like Gordimer's fireflies in the dark--from the sort of narrative practice that seeks meaning by mediating between a concatenation of events.(6)
In this trepidation before historical transmission, the short story's concerns about the conflicts and dangers of remembrance correspond to Marcel Proust's notions of voluntary and involuntary memory. When Proust's Marcel tastes his famous madeleine, what he fortuitously re-experiences is the original configuration of taking tea with his aunt. To his astonishment, he discovers that by replacing the initial experience's futural projection with a specifically recalled history (voluntary memory) he has effectively altered his past; indeed, he has "forgotten" the strange abundance of his childhood (involuntary memory).(7) The short story, expanding one temporal horizon, delineates the manner in which uncertain futural projections contribute to our understanding of what encapsulates an event. Focusing on the vicissitudes of both cultural and personal remembrance, short fiction conceives of time not as a uniform, homogeneous background against which history discloses its meanings, but rather as a matrix in which a variety of irreconcilable elements are disconcertingly embedded.
Suspicious that reconstituting the past through sequential narrative effectively distorts what it records, Walter Benjamin counters the historicist project with his allegorical construct of the "dialectical image." Borrowing from Proust's differentiation between memoire involontaire and memoire volontaire, Benjamin extends this model to the dialectical materialist's investigation of the past: "History in the strict sense is an image from involuntary memory, an image which suddenly occurs to the subject of history in the moment of danger" (qtd. in Cadava 104). For Benjamin, memoire involontaire provisionally sustains the integrity of the past as an unresolved hermeneutic situation, an evanescent image that precludes assimilation into arbitrary narrativizations. Haunted by the responsibilities of historical transmission, the short story disavows the consolation that explanation possibly provides; instead, the short story refuses to relinquish a sensed, but unrealizable element contained within the unrepeatable conditions that form its own passing. We often call this process mourning.
Julia Kristeva's temporal symptomology of melancholia offers a means of rethinking the short story's resistance to sequentiality:
Massive, weighty, doubtless traumatic because laden with too much
sorrow or too much joy, a moment blocks the horizon of depressive
temporality or rather removes any horizon, any perspective. Riveted
to the past, regressing to the paradise or inferno of an unsurpassable
experience, melancholy persons manifest a strange memory
I do not wish to suggest that short story writers necessarily suffer from clinical depression or that short fiction can be reduced thematically to illustrating instances of melancholia.(8) However, Kristeva's "melancholy moment" deepens the ongoing critical attempt to articulate the mode of understanding--emotional, intellectual--endemic to the genre. Not necessarily epiphanic, yet imbued with "metaphysical lucidity" (4), this sensibility cannot help but be loyal to singularity, will not be persuaded that the past or the future has any significant bearing on an event's distinct particularity. If short fiction adopts the traits of Kristeva's melancholy when it fastens onto the single temporal horizon, the genre points to a mode of historicity that sets itself apart from the grand narrative of "History," acutely, but abstractly, testifying to the vicissitudes of loss, the inestimable value of human experience. This point is a difficult one. When Fredric Jameson chides the short story for being a way of "surmounting time, of translating a formless temporal succession into a simultaneity which we can grasp and possess," he does so because he believes that the genre is secondary to the novel "and the endless prospect of genuine time unfolding that it promises" (74). Numerous short story theorists would concur with the first part of Jameson's description, that short fiction engages the synchronous, May's argument that the short story "recapitulates mythic perception" being the most thorough.(9) "Genuine time," for Jameson, however, of course invokes a Marxist dialectic; for him, the short story stands in danger of denying the materiality of history. While a story such as Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party," with its turn of the century aestheticization of the dead work-man, critiques economic and social conditions with a dialectic as caustic and sensitive as any novel,(10) it most attends to the fact that the temporal nexus of these forces is experienced by individuals as chaos. In the midst of this turmoil, Mansfield's young widow turns toward both the story's well-to-do heroine and the reader:
Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked
terrible. She seemed as though she couldn't understand why Laura
was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the
kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? (1116)
Taking place almost literally in a threshold, this scene presents us with a muted grief that, as May would perhaps argue, potentially takes on archetypal proportions. Equally though, this story quietly treats the event as an implosive breach in the everyday flow of time, a dislocation that threatens to collapse those narratives that seek to contain it. Mansfield's only partially narrated lives exert a special claim on us because of the materiality of their absence, an absence that suggests that to ruminate upon historical traces is necessarily to detour into a consideration of the event as an invisible aggregate of intersecting human lives. If novels--and indeed historical media in general--mediate events by linking them into a cohesive series, short fiction mourns the event as if its passing stains the very fabric of time, abating discourse's ability to recuperate what has been lost.(11) To understand this melancholic attitude from the standpoint of textual desire, let us turn to Peter Brooks's analysis of the psychological mechanics involved in the creation of narrative plots.
Attempting to interrelate the act of reading with Freud's Beyond The Pleasure Principle, Brooks argues that "what operates in the text is the death instinct, the drive toward the end" (102). For Brooks, a text depends upon a dynamic interplay of eros and thanatos, a position in which "nonnarratable existence is stimulated into the condition of narratability, to enter a state of deviance and detour ... before returning to the quiescence of the nonnarratable" (108). While a text perseveres in the direction of its own destruction, it nonetheless seeks a closure that, similar to Freud's understanding of the organism's instinctual energies, is the "right death," the ending that most suits its distinctive needs. Opposed to the novel's penchant for circuitous deferrals, interruptions, and recirclings, the short story manifests a form of textual desire that contains a relentless drive toward its own ending, but this drive, which has both formal and philosophical attributes, opens up a kind of repetition that calls for a reassessment of the textual details that have culminated so irrevocably. It is as though details become dilated in a short story,(12) requiring us as readers to return to them again and again; but this concentration on hermeneutical uncertainty does not lessen a story's apparent yearning for narrative closure. Short fiction begins to disappear almost as soon as the reader begins reading; as Joyce Carol Oates puts it, a short story is "a structure of words that consumes itself as it unfolds, like ice melting on a stove" (329). By effectively magnifying the oscillating rhythm between eros and thanatos that Brooks identifies as the determining agent of textual desire and endings in general, the short story's exploration of the tenuous relationship between "narratability" and the "nonnarratable" is especially exacting.
If short fiction seems less hesitant to defer the end (but accentuates this deferral with Kristeva's "melancholy moment"), yet more urgent in the exigencies of its textual energies, perhaps we can say that it is a form that embodies a pronounced ambivalence as to the power of narrative to ameliorate temporal loss. Because short fiction implies that events are not a harmonious synchronization of action and time that can be recouped through retrospective narration or "covering laws,"(13) the genre makes special demands upon the reader. Let us now consider the short story as a readerly problem of hermeneutics.
I am not James A. Michener's most ardent fan, but his remark to
my students some years ago--that he aspires in his novels `to create
a world in which [his] readers will pleasurably spend some weeks'--deserves
in my estimation, to stand as a counterpoise beside Poe's
dictum that the short story be readable `at one sitting.' To create a
world: That's it, precisely.
John Barth, "It's a Long Story" 72
Barth's perceiving the novel as a "world"--with its own particular system(s), genealogies, hierarchies--accentuates his belief that the novel both creates and explains its own internal references. For him, the creation in the novel of a world does not necessarily mean that the novel reveals the "real" world; he maintains in The Friday Book that the novel offers "not a Weltanschauung but a Welt; not a view of the cosmos, but a cosmos itself" (17). What is of interest here is the way that Barth and others perceive the novel (either one of Michener's "realist" novels or the postmodernist variation written by Barth) as an integrated whole, a cosmos. Following Barth, we might seek to differentiate the short story from the novel by examining the degree to which either is self-sustaining; however (as Barth would be the first to admit), Jorge Luis Borges's "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"--"the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia"--(3) exhibits an autonomy that could also be characterized in cosmological terms metaphorically. Perhaps, then, Borges's ficciones are different from Barth's novels only in their respective reading times. And yet, The Friday Book, replete with references to works that "make a universe," offers only Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" as the principal example of a "cosmological" text that is neither a novel nor an epic poem. Implicit in Barth's comparison is the concomitant acceptance that narrative length usually contributes to scope.
A short story, of course, also possesses internal references that coalesce into an aesthetic whole; however, a short story's brevity creates a compression that renders context opaque. To investigate the manner in which short stories involve opacity, we need to consider how texts maneuver the reader's sense of context. When Barth compares the novel to a cosmos, he does not mean that the novel is created ex nihilo; rather, a novelist draws upon what Ross Chambers calls a contextual "encyclopedia" (95) of information available to the reader in order to construct his or her fictional world. According to Chambers, the "encyclopedia of a text" is that overall knowledge (both extratextual and intertextual) to which the text (either directly or implicitly) refers, knowledge that the writer assumes is potentially familiar to the reader. Since literary texts operate on a different ontological level than that which composes the reader's experience of "real life," we can say that the act of reading involves the reader's adjusting his or her "encyclopedic" knowledge to the particular text at hand. In other words (to use Chambers's own example), the "Paris" of Baudelaire's poetry is dependent not only upon the reader's awareness of the geographical location's existence, but also the ways in which "Paris" has been described by other writers. Finally, Baudelaire's "Paris" is a city that has been "invented" by the poet. When we contrast the short story to the novel, we need to consider whether the two forms manipulate the context of the reader's encyclopedia differently.
All literary texts reconfigure the reader's encyclopedia; and different texts demand varying responses from the reader in terms of the particular encyclopedia summoned. However, all texts redirect the reader's extratextual and intertextual experience towards a synthesis: the familiar (in terms of the cultural encyclopedia upon which the writer draws) must be reconciled with that which is unique to the text at hand. While both the short stories of Flannery O'Connor and Barth's novels might be said to create fictional "worlds," O'Connor's texts make different demands on the reader in terms of how their "worlds" are to be constructed in the reader's mind. Novels, providing a profusion of details that specify how they need to be differentiated from the encyclopedia they invoke, tend to devise, as Barth suggests, a cosmos that is entire unto itself, whereas short stories offer fewer indications as to how the reader should reconcile the encyclopedia intimated by the text with what is present in the text itself. For this reason, short stories--when compared to the novel--implicitly require the reader to bring to them an inverse, disproportionate level of hypothetical supposition in order to determine the significance of the given details offered by a text. If one considers that short stories not only generally focus on a single event, but that they also limit contextual interpretation, one might say that short stories, to a greater degree than the novel, frequently operate by suspending context.
Stories that revolve around an epiphanic moment, such as "The Dead," may be seen to illustrate precisely the reader's perplexity in ascertaining the significance of textual details in the short story generally. An epiphany is supposedly engendered from details that are contained within a text, but the epiphanic revelation pertains also to an implied extension of the story's situation. It is for this reason--among others--that readers interpret epiphanies differently. Presumably, the character who experiences an epiphany is cognizant of a unity, however provisional, existing between a detail that transpires within the story and the absent continuum that exceeds the story. Our difficulty as readers consists in the fact that this unity remains unstated. For the reader, only textual details exist and the continuum remains a hypothetical projection; depending upon how a reader's particular imagination colors this absent horizon, he or she will allocate some details in the text greater significance than others. Not all stories are based upon epiphanic revelations, but all stories contain at least two incommensurate hermeneutic levels: the internal (belonging to the narrator[s] and and/or characters) and the external (based on the reader's textual interpretation that takes place necessarily on the outside). While all texts maintain this central hermeneutic dichotomy between text and reader, the short story--in comparison to the novel--exacerbates the reader's disjunction from the text by limiting the grounds through which context may be determined, Short stories are essentially paradoxes: while they rely upon the reader to "fill in," to provide a context for what Wolfgang Iser would call the "gaps" in a text,(14) they also acutely limit the reader's ability to do so adequately.
Eschewing explanation, then, the short story's "widened moment" may correspond to, as Gordimer suggests, the reader's phenomenological experience. Responding to Barth, we might say that instead of stressing the invention of a cosmos, the short story tentatively exposes a condition that is grounded in hermeneutic crisis. A short story may be analogous to the "flash of fireflies"; what strains the reader's ability to interpret accurately is the difficulty of ascertaining the identity of what this evanescent flashing in the darkness precisely reveals. In the "Serpents and skulls" section of Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino describes a situation of warring hermeneutical strategies that may be used to elucidate the intricacies that I believe are involved in reading a short story.
In Calvino's text, a Mr. Palomar tours the pre-Columbian ruins of Tula. With him is a Mexican friend who, explaining that, "in Mexican archaeology every statue, every object, every detail of a bas-relief stands for something else that stands in turn, for yet another something," then proceeds to render "each stone ... into a cosmic tale, an allegory, a moral reflection" (95-98). In contradistinction to Mr. Palomar's erudite and semiotically inclined friend, a young school teacher (also touring the Toltec ruins) instructs his charges by first naming the object at hand and then repeatedly insisting "we don't know what it means."(15) Large theoretical issues regarding interpretation are obviously invoked through Calvino's parable; however, one can link the two approaches to Baxter's emphasis on the way that the short story distances itself from the explanatory mode of the novel. Both points of view are implicit in Baxter's description of the short story. In Calvino's text, the node of perception is Mr. Palomar, and he rejects neither his companion nor the possibly intrusive teacher. Nor (the reader is left to infer) does Mr. Palomar allow for a dialectical synthesis of the two oppositions; rather, both perspectives are granted equal, although contradictory, authority and status. Inimical to explanation, the short story offers an expanded moment; reading a short story may entail an interpretive equipoise that accepts the necessity for determining connections as much as it recognizes the dangers of doing so. (What does the interruption of the ringing telephone in Vladimir Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" indicate more profoundly than the dilemmas of devising interpretations?) Mr. Palomar's guide is willing to risk reading the ruins as a continuum, but the school teacher rejects the possibility of any reading whatsoever, since he is aware that he cannot provide the correspondences that would be necessary to interpret accurately. The short story seems to call for a reader who takes, as it were, the tentative standpoint of a Mr. Palomar.
The short story thus operates on a paradoxical set of axes: on the one hand, most short stories tacitly rely upon projections of the narrative world that exceed the text (as suggested, the "epiphany" of "The Dead" depends upon Gabriel and Gretta having existences that extend beyond Christmas celebrations); on the other hand, the short story's cryptic "widened moment" denies a coherent contiguity that is extraneous to the text (Laura, in Katherine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas," is both restrained and defined by her situation). What is crucial to both these axes is the short story's heightened and calculated manipulation of the reader. In order to articulate more clearly how the genre especially manipulates the reader, it is helpful to examine the effects of endings.
Reflecting on the difference between story-telling and "reporting," Benjamin observes that "there is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate" (100). Short fiction, according to Benjamin, depends upon an inferred continuation of the narrative world. Although Benjamin's remarks concerning the novel perhaps most pertain to the realist novel, they offer a means of distinguishing the novel from the short story: "The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing `finis'" (100). Most novels, either of the realist or postmodern variety, end, as Benjamin notes, with an implied sense of "FINIS." John Barth's The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, for instance, concludes by curling back to its beginning pages, and then more, by positing a condition that is anterior to the initial narration. Short stories, in general, either implicitly or specifically project a hypothetical continuation of the narrative world created by the text, a postnarrational existence. In Sansom's "The Vertical Ladder," we as readers are required to imagine both the psychological and physical difficulties of Flegg's position in terms of the future, just as much of the power of "The Dead" resides in our pondering Gabriel's meditation on his future. This is not to argue that novels don't posit fictional posteriority; in varying degrees, most do. The difference resides, however, in narrative strategy: short stories are hinged on an uncertain postnarrational projection of the narrative world, whereas novels are more self-contained, making an extension of their heterocosms simply incidental.16 Our difficulty as readers of short fiction resides in the fact that while we are committed to imagining the text's extension, we can only hypothesize about its parameters. It is, of course, this particular aspect of short fiction that often contributes most to our delight.
One of the principal means available to the short story in its undermining of a reader's ability to concretize adequately is to take advantage of temporal delay. Signification in both the short story and the novel involves temporal delay (the reader steadily contextualizes the linear concatenation of details presented in the text); but in the short story, this delay is offset by the expectation of an ever -approaching ending. The reader's expectation of an imminent ending conditions his or her concretization of a short story, since it rigorously destabilizes the imagined referent. Commenting on Poe's belief in "the single effect," John Gerlach argues in his article, "Closure in Modern Fiction," that the short story "achieves singleness by working with the end constantly in mind," since endings "are operative as controllers of the reader's experience" (145-52). This is not to maintain that a short story need necessarily be organized around a single unifying principle (say the ironic endings often associated with Maupassant); rather, the reader of a short story is continually conscious that the meaning created by the story's ending may sweep back through the story, altering any or all textual details in the process. Flannery O'Connor's frequently anthologized "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is an excellent case in point.
The key to O'Connor's technique is her use of a narrator who tempts the reader into concretizing certain textual details according to what Roland Barthes has described in The Rustle of Language as the "reality effect"--narrative "notations" whose function is to create the "referential illusion" of verisimilitude (148). The arrival of the umbrageous Misfit, the grandmother's pathetic impotence in face of the murder of her family, then creates a level of significance that curves back through the story, transforming seemingly innocuous details into portents of meaning yet to arise. O'Connor's artistry resides in her ability to interweave seamlessly the eventually significant (symbolic, proleptic, metaphoric) with the quotidian, so that multivalent textual details seem to take place on the same plane. Concretization is thereby undermined at its source since the reader is incapable of allocating textual significance with any degree of assurance; unremarkable `realistic details threaten to detonate. While not all short stories elicit the degree of indeterminacy necessary for concretization that is demanded by O'Connor's agile narrator, the short story tends to exploit this particular strategy more so than other genres. Novels often employ foreshadowing and the leitmotif; detective fiction encourages the reader to examine textual details with an eye to forensic significance; but the short story, as Austin M. Wright describes, engages a specific formal "recalcitrance" that destabilizes concretization by slowing down and interfering with the reader's ability to concretize accurately (116).
Wright points out that short story "recalcitrance depends upon the convention that `every thing in the story counts'" (123), a view that is rudimentary to hermeneutics in general. Frank Kermode writes, in The Genesis of Secrecy: "within a text no part is less privileged than the other parts" (53). When theorists such as Gerlach and Wright accentuate the importance of endings to the reading of short stories, they do not necessarily grant endings an authoritative status over previous textual details-, rather, I take them to mean that the presence of an ever-approaching ending intimates to the reader that each individual detail entails the possibility of salience. That short stories, in general, seem to be shaped structurally by their endings (a phenomenon that applies to even the most "open-ended" examples of the form) would appear to be a residue of the short story's ancestors--the parable, the fable, as well as the short story's proximity to the everyday experience of listening to someone offering an anecdote.
One consequence an ending's shaping influence has on a short story is the manner in which the concretization of an imagined heterocosm is made secondary to an investigation of narrative voice. Novels are texts that consist largely of creating a dense fictional "space" through which characters can be, as Thackeray suggests in Vanity Fair, "managed." (From Fielding's Tom Jones through Ulysses, to Don DeLillo's Libra, the novel has frequently involved the concept of a lengthy journey, if not a geographic variety, then a temporal one.) Short stories, on the other hand, might be said to manifest a much more insistent sense of teleology; for all stories, the question "why is this narrative being told?" is primary. The reader anticipates that a story's ending will provide a satisfactory response to this initial question that hovers over each concretization made by him or her. Often, contemporary stories work against this anticipation by denying the reader the ability to understand the narrator's motives for recounting his or her story. The short story, emphasizing ellipsis, construes an especially tentative, provisional heterocosm, in order to examine the dimensions of narrative voice. Poe's narrators are emblematic of the short story in general: in their manic and manipulative desire to establish a requisite authority, they demonstrate what might be called the short story's overall propensity to exploit the reader's inability to differentiate what is being told from the manner in which it is offered.
The narrator of Russell Banks's "My Mother's Memoirs, My Father's Lie and Other True Stories," begins his narrative by announcing: "My mother tells me stories about her past, and I don't believe them, I interpret them" (30). Owing to his mother's tendency for interweaving fabricated details of encounters with celebrities into her anecdotes, the narrator has learned to search for the psychological motivation behind a story-teller's manipulation of narrative. Earl's inclination towards exegesis is not disinterested; for him, "converting" his mother's stories into psychological portraits offers a means of comparing the workings of her mind to his, a way of ascertaining origins. Near the end of the text, the narrator pays one of his infrequent visits to his mother, and she tells him another story, this one concerning an ordinary, troubled young man she's seen in a restaurant. After being asked what this particular story is "about," the mother responds: "About? Why, I don't know. Nothing I guess" (38). The narrator then realizes that story-telling, whether it involves truth or falsity, manifests at its most rudimentary level the desire to be heard. If we consider Banks's story to be a parable that explores the hermeneutical act in light of the short story, what do we learn?
Perhaps the most significant aspect to the story is the tension that exists between interpretation and what the narrator calls "listening." For Earl, "remembering ... the stories of others" is akin to "writing [his] memoirs," a notion that parallels Hans-Georg Gadamer's belief that hermeneutics fundamentally engages "dialogue." Interpretation involves a subjective give-and-take with a text, where what is presented in a narrative is reinscribed according to the reader's experience. To "listen," however, posits a condition that entails repetition, rather than interpretive alteration. Banks's narrator does not inform us of the final story's meaning; he simply repeats the anec-dote, recognizing that the content of the story cannot be separated from the fundamental existence of the voice who desires to speak. I referred earlier to Mr. Palomar's interpretive equipoise, which balances rigorous hermeneutical exegesis with simply "naming" the object at hand (a text, a personal anecdote recounting everyday experience) and saying "we don't know what it means." If we combine both texts, and apply them to the short story, we can perceive how the form often requires a reader who is willing both to interpret a text and to suspend interpretation, to wait.
Short stories, through brevity, and their tendency to depict a single temporal horizon, often create a special dynamic that invites the reader to project, as Gadamer would say, his or her "prejudices" against a given text; but at the same time, such a text contains an unknowable element. The short story does not so much create the vast, interconnected cosmology that writers such as Barth associate with the novel, as it presents a hermeneutic condition of crisis, a "flash of fireflies," a "widened moment." Let me conclude these remarks with an image taken from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a text whose monumental proportion positions the reader very differently from short fiction.
In an early portion of the novel, Pynchon describes a moment when Pointsman and Mexico are having a conversation on a winter beach. As they walk away, he writes:
We have lost them.... They walked till that winter hid them ... and no
one, none of us, could ever completely find them again. Their footprints
filled with ice, and a little later were taken out to sea. (92)
A moment such as this in Gravity's Rainbow is perhaps made the more powerful because it threatens to become lost in the labyrinth of the text as a whole. Short stories obviously do not avail themselves of a novel's capability for buttressing such distancing effects (the reader's presence, that is also a separation from the textual world, is poignantly enacted through the disappearing footprints) with surrounding discourse; short stories simply present the situation nakedly. A reader of Gravity's Rainbow pauses, before being swept back into the movement of the text that follows, whereas a reader of a short story is left merely with the "footprints," as it were. Pynchon's footprints perhaps may be said to invoke metaphorically the primary experience offered to the reader by the short story through its form; there is the opportunity for recognition, but it is a recognition that, instead of being meliorated by further discourse, is abruptly undermined by an enveloping silence. When we read short fiction, we are placed in the hiatus between knowing and not-knowing; first we interpret, then, as Banks suggests, we listen.
I would like to thank Linda Hutcheon, Mark Levene, Russell Brown, and Lynn Wells for their helpful advice regarding this article.
(1) In his essay "The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction," Charles E. May notes that Bernard Bergonzi "suggests that the short story is limited `both in the range of literary experience it offers and its capacity to deepen our understanding of the world, or of one another'" (329-30). Praising what he calls novels of "excess" (or "systems novels"), Tom LeClair quite openly distinguishes between the "cultural significance" created by works of varying length, For him, massive texts such as Gravity's Rainbow--in their attempts to articulate "the plethora of information" present in contemporary culture--"shift [the reader's] attention from the personal arid local to the communal and global" (3), whereas short fiction manifests the desire to reduce what may be called a surfeit of information into the cogent "observation."
(2) Mary Rohrberger analyzes short fiction from a Bergsonian perspective in "Strange Loops: Time in the Short Story," Visions Critique 6 (1990). For an extended reading of the short story's treatment of history, see my "`FAMOUS TIMES': Historicity in the Short Fiction of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver," Wascana Review 28:2 (Fall 1994).
(3) Barry Hannah's short story, "Testimony of Pilot," would appear to be somewhat anomalous; rather than concentrating on a single event, the story depicts numerous events, occurrences that have taken place over the space of two decades. However, the narrator's final comment--"That is why I told this story and will never tell another"--(44) makes it evident to the reader that the story's most significant temporal horizon is the moment of narration.
(4) In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford describes the short story's concentration on the isolated moment in ethical terms:
Or maybe short story writers--more so than novelists--are moralists
at heart, and the form lends itself to acceptable expres-sions of
caution: You! You're not paying enough attention to your life,
parcelled out as it is in increments smaller and more significant than
you seem aware of. Here's a form which invites more detailed
notice--displaying fife not as it is, admittedly, but in flashbacks, in
hyper-reality, with epiphanies and without.... (xvii)
(5) Dominic Head finds fault with much of short story theory's "failure to account for the mutable, evolving nature of genre" (3), a position that would criticize my generalized treatment of the short story. While no generic model can hope to define absolutely a class of aesthetic objects whose members spring from divergent traditions and periods, it does seem possible to clarify aspects of a given genre in terms of the problems the form attempts to articulate over time. When Hawthorne's Wakefield hesitates at the door of the house and family he's abandoned for twenty years, the narrator posits that "by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing himself forever" (161-62). This early nineteenth-century short story is almost archetypal of the genre as a whole: anticipating Bakhtin's notion of the threshold, "Wakefield" threatens biographical time in an allegorical manner. Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation" examines this chronotope by considering what it means to experience the deaths of others without being able to resort to larger contextualizing cultural narratives such as religion or politics. Alice Munro's recent "Open Secrets" anatomizes the temporal configuration of an event in a way that recalls Freud's notion of screen memories. Each text, although positioned at a different historical moment, foregrounds the disjunctive nature of temporal experience; what changes from Hawthorne to Munro is each story's patterning itself on a discursive form contemporary to it--the parable, the modernist epiphany and the psychoanalytic encounter respectively.
(6) In Heinrich Boll's Billiards At Half-past Nine, an elderly woman, incarcerated in a psychiatric institution and speaking to a fellow inmate, a retired Nazi officer, says: "Here we don't think of time as an indefinite continuous concept but rather as separate units which must not be related and become history .... With us, time is always today, Verdun is today and today Heinrich died and Otto fell" (219). This character's repudiation of historical process of relating separate events is based upon her experience that "history" may be invoked to justify political action. Her jeremaid attacks the shaping influence of ideology; an individual who conceives of history in teleological terms is liable to use history as a means of exoneration.
(7) Kevin Newmark distinguishes between the Proustian distinction between memoire volontaire and memoire involontaire: "for Proust there are two kinds of reality, of self, of memory, of experience; one that is substantial and remains to be uncovered, the other a superficial and false, one could say ideological, version of the first. Insofar as the memoire volontaire does not take the implication of the self in the operations of memory seriously enough, it is like the merely `possible' truths of abstract intelligence, only that it is oriented toward some hypothetical past rather than a hypothetical present or future" (169).
(8) Several of the short stories in Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest specifically invoke clinical depression.
(9) For May, the short story is that literary form that "breaks up the familiar life-world of the everyday, defamiliarizes our assumption that reality is simply the conceptual construct we take it to be, and throws into doubt that our propositional and categorical mode of perceiving can be applied to human beings as well as to objects" (333).
(10) For an incisive Althusserian reading of Mansfield's story see Head 131-38.
(11) We are only now beginning to understand the psychological mechanics of trauma. Until recently, psychoanalytic models have dominated the discussion of this phenomenon, an approach that regards trauma as an anomalous version of repression. Working from Pierre Janet, rather than Freud, Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart perceive an individual's ability to synthesize a traumatic experience into a continuous narrative as being a result of psychological dissociation. "Dissociation," to them, "reflects a horizontally layered model of the mind: when a subject does not remember a trauma, its `memory' is contained in an alternate stream of consciousness" (168). Janet himself maintains that, ordinarily, people assimilate events in a manner that is decidedly novelistic; when we experience an event, it is assimilated through "the organization of the event to others and to ourselves, and through the putting of this recital in its place as one of the chapters in our personal history" (qtd. in van der Kolk 171). The short story, then, posits a breach in this practice of narratival assimilation.
(12) In "`Tess' and Tess: An Experiment in Genre," Suzanne Hunter Brown isolates a section of Hardy's novel to discover what changes occur when this section is then read as a short story. According to her, "perceiving the work as a short story creates a strong drive to render all details `symbolic'; that is, to interpret metaphorically" (40). Although I share Brown's belief that brevity often induces the reader to consider metaphorical dimensions of "mimetic" details, I would argue that what the metamorphosis from novel to short story demonstrates most clearly is how such an alteration increases a text's indeterminacy.
(13) For Peter Munz, historical events by themselves arc unintelligible; "covering laws" are those explanatory models that allow historians to render "the transition from one event to another" (115) into a continuous narrative.
(14) Iser sees all texts as manifesting "gaps" that the reader must "fill in"; indeed, this idea is central to his entire theory of reader-response. In The Act of Reading, he writes: "Blanks and negations increase the density of fictional texts, for the omissions and cancellations indicate that practically all the formulations of the text refer to an unformulated background, and so the formulated text has a kind of unformulated double" (225-26). Although Iser recognizes that some texts (such as those of Samuel Beckett) are more indeterminate than others in their emphasis on "negativity," he does not differentiate between the ways various genres employ textual omission. It is my belief that the short story relies on omission more than the novel, and as such, following Iser, we might say that this strategy "increases the density" of short fiction.
(15) The teacher's antagonism towards interpretation recalls Susan Sontag's belief that interpretation is "the revenge of the intellect upon the world" (98).
(16) When we discuss the importance of endings to the short story we necessarily engage a version of the hermeneutic circle; that is, the relation between the manner in which short stories emphasize endings cannot be disengaged from the reader's accumulated experience of reading numerous short stories, an overall experience that suggests that the genre is one that accentuates endings. The reader of short fiction reads with the expectation that the ending is relevant to the text. Thus, when Susan Lohafer maintains, in Coming to Terms with the Short Story, that the short story is "the most end-conscious of the literary forms" (50), she also recognizes that short story readers are the most end-conscious of all readers. This is not to suggest that the emphasis most short story theorists place on endings is arbitrary. As Benjamin and Mary Louise Pratt (among many others) suggest, the short story is rooted in the oral tradition. Story-tellers, entertaining their audiences with folklore, offered their tales as exempla, in which the recitation was dependent upon the ending, since a story's ending offered a means of interpreting the story that had been told.
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