Friday, October 21, 2016

The struggle of short story collections | Nasreen Jahan and Gail Hareven

This is an odd confession and one that makes me slightly uncomfortable, but... I struggle with a lot of single-author short story collections. As I've mentioned in past reviews, many collections start to feel dragged down for me because of their repetitive styles and themes. Kjell Askildsen, for example, lost me when every single story ran along the exact same threads and ideas. Even authors I love - like Tove Jansson - lose me relatively quickly once the stories start to feel like they follow the same mold. It's not that the individual stories are themselves bad, it's just that... they're basically the same story again and again, with a different wrapping.

This happened to me again recently, with two collections: Nasreen Jahan's slim A Temporary Sojourn and Other Stories, and the most recent short story collection from Gail Hareven (in Hebrew: אנשים טועים, or "People Fail"). Jahan's collection - kindly provided to me via the publisher and translated by multiple translators - struck me instantly as an interesting collection that I couldn't delve into in one go. Small as the book is (and brief as the stories are), I just couldn't sink into it. Reading three stories in a row, I felt like they had blended into each other. Even as the different translators produced a slightly different effect for the stories, it felt like Jahan was examining the same story from slightly different angles. Extremely interesting, but... not necessarily something I want to read in one go.

And that feeling continued, even as I revisited the stories in pieces. I loved how Jahan focused on women's stories and the slightly more fantastical pieces, but at times it was a bit difficult to disentangle the stories from each other. After finishing the collection, the stories seemed blended - I know that I read many different accounts of lives in Bangladesh, but I didn't feel like any single story stood out or distinguished itself from the bunch. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the pretty stark differences between the translators' different styles - while Jahan's story structures felt similar, the writing didn't always feel like it came from the same author and the balance was perhaps thus skewed.

I had a slightly different experience with Gail Hareven's latest, which I'm currently reading. This new short story collection, so far, is entirely written in a conversational style. Every. Single. Story. The first story - though I didn't like the subject matter or narrator much - felt like a revelation. Such a cool style! So casual and comfortable. The next story improved on the style, chatting easily about a completely different topic. As did the next. And the next. And the next...

And so though the story plots themselves stand out surprisingly well, the style begins to feel tedious. Is this an exercise on Hareven's part? Is she simply exploring every possible character with this style? Part of me feels that I ought to commend the collection for playing so blatantly with an unconventional style, but I also find it exhausting. Though the narrators are different from each other, the conversational aspect makes everyone sound just a bit more alike than they would in any other storytelling format. I find myself itching to read through a story from another angle, not simply have a story told at me.

Jahan and Hareven's collections have their obvious merits and I would not for a moment want to take away from them. But I can't help that feeling of "can't I get something just a bit different?" On the one hand, a short story collection with too many changes in style or structure will feel cobbled together and poorly designed. On the other hand, these collections feel repetitive in a way that detracts from the strengths of the individual stories.

Some collections manage to avoid either pitfall, but these are often exceptions. Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories, for example, is a book I've both read through in large chunks and one I've visited sporadically (I'm about halfway through, and remain in awe of Lispector's ability to write completely different stories with a completely unique feeling and yet her distinct style throughout). But Lispector is a unique case of an author whose entire body of work rather feels like a masterclass in short story writing. Most writers fall somewhere in the range between Jahan and Hareven, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just sometimes a bit harder to work through.

3 comments:

  1. It's exactly the same for me! For my project to read a book from each country/territory, I selected Borges's collected short fictions, and it's going to take forever, one story a time, because I want to avoid this blurrying effect.
    Many thanks also for your table of translated women writers. This is a fantastic compilation for sourcing writers for my project!
    Kristina

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  2. I have become more of a fan of short story collections, but I do tend toward multiple-author collections (especially so that if I'm not feeling a particular author/story, I can skip to the next one). Exceptions for me are Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. The stories in their collections are definitely similar in theme, and in Diaz, it's mostly the same character--but the stories were different enough, or built one each other enough, for me. Or maybe I just like reading the same story over and over if it's a really good story =P

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  3. I have this problem often as well. But I like what Mavis Gallant said about short stories - read them one at a time, and take a break between them!

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