Master of the Poetics of Place

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Master of the Poetics of Place


Byline: MELANIE McGRATH

Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (Bloomsbury, ?18.99)

TOBIAS Wolff has a theory, apparently, to explain why the short story is more popular in America than in Britain. It's all about cultural fragmentation.

The short story is the prize in the brantub of the American experience. Pick at random, every prize a different kind of story.

There may be some truth in this analysis, though it omits one vital detail, which is that there are dozens of prestigious outlets for short stories in the US as compared to Britain, which has, um, Granta. As a result, American short story writers get two bites at the cherry, thus opening up the possibility of actually being able to make a living. So it's hardly surprising that American writers set their minds more keenly to the short form.

More than two-thirds of the stories in this, Tobias Wolff's latest collection, have been published before, mostly in magazines, some as long ago as 30 years, but what's surprising, given Wolff's brantub theory, is not how much but how little variation his work offers. Wolff's characters are all misfits, fantasists and liars, driven by anger, humiliation, boredom or the simple need to make better sense of their lives by reinventing the details.

In The Liar a boy imagines illnesses for his mother as an act of revenge for her coldness to him. In The Rich Brother a conman endeavours to sell shares in a nonexistent gold mine. In Nightingale, a father reinvents his own childhood as justification for sending his son to military academy.

His stories are permeated by what Wolff himself describes as a "sourness of foreboding", a view of the world "where wounds did not heal and things did not work out for the best", which, even over 10 or 12 pages, can feel a little like running a marathon in cold rain while sporting a hair shirt. …

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