The Short Stories of Louise Edrich's Novels
Ferguson, Suzanne, Studies in Short Fiction
In much recent short story theory, attempts are made to identify formal characteristics peculiar to the genre of "short story," or, in a variation of that attempt, to identify elements in a story that influence the reader to believe s/he is coming to the conclusion, or at least foreseeing the end of a "story" (see, especially, the work of Susan Lohafer), thus implying a conception of reading that attends to formal signals of a "whole" fictional work. In 1982, Suzanne Hunter Brown, who has since carried her psychological/ cognitive investigations further, experimented with reading a chapter of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles as if it were an independent story, showing how different elements emerged with different importance when read as elements of a short story rather than a novel. She concluded, as I do in "Defining the Short Story, Impressionism and Form" and as have other critics such as Karl-Heinz Stierle and Mary Rohrberger, that in the short story, the reader is more likely to focus on theme and symbol, which allow us to process the text as a meaningful construct, rather than on verisimilitude, which allows the reader to "live" vicariously through a novel. This is not to say that verisimilitude is unimportant in the short story, but rather that we experience it differently in a fiction we expect to be short because we are attending more carefully to its potential for creating themes. Also importantly, more interpretive "capital" is likely to be located in the individual words and phrases of the short story text than of the novel, where according to Brown the reader generally attends more to and recalls whole scenes (35).
Similar attempts have been made to theorize special generic characteristics of the story "sequence" or story "cycle," analyzing volumes of stories presented by their authors as having special interrelationships, with their multiple representations of themes that are progressively or recursively developed. Yet what of the novel that has appeared, wholly or partly, as independent stories in magazines? When the stories were published, they were read as short stories--yet because we now know them to be "chunks" of novels, we cease to consider them as separate works.
Louise Erdrich's novels are among those that have frequently been preceded by story publication; and indeed narrative situations in which individual story-tellers narrate their own or others' "stories" are typical of the Erdrich novel and have been frequently remarked by her critics. The stories that make up Erdrich's novels rub against each other, juxtaposing different narrative voices, time frames, and styles, creating productive dissonances of signification and feeling. Yet despite being what one critic calls "collection[s] of interlocking narratives,"(1) her novels are not generically similar to those collections that are identified as "cycles" or "sequences," like Winesburg, Ohio, Dubliners, Go Down Moses, 7he Golden Apples, or the like, precisely because the "stories" have become "chapters," and the intermittently reappearing narrators achieve independent, important lives as characters in their own narratives as well as in those of the other character/narrators. Neither are the "short stories" interpolated into a "master" narrative like the "stories" told by characters in The Confidence Man or Absalom, Absalom! Rather, they are the episodes of that narrative.
In this paper, I want to return to "framing" some of Erdrich's stories as short stories, in order to explore their construction of meanings in that genre, comparing them with their novelistic counterparts, in a sense "defamiliarizing" them to explore the interpretive differences that emerge when they are read as stories rather than parts of novels, and speculating on the generic and interpretive implications of Erdrich's "new" kind of story-sequence novel. I will discuss the four stories that have so far been singled out for Best American Short Stories or Prize Stories, the O. …