The Short Story – Short Only in Form

There are standalone short stories that get published in literary magazines, one at a time, staggered across multiple publications and over a period of time, stories that writers write when the feeling strikes, when the muse awakens, when the light is just right, when the children have left for school, and the milkman has come and gone.

Then there are short story collections, sometimes a gathering of stories by a single author and sometimes anthologies of stories by multiple authors. These collections may have a theme or may be utterly unrelated. There are also connected short stories; stories where characters are interlinked across several stories.

Short stories are no less a form of fiction-writing than novels, no less a way to tell a compelling story with nuance and style, with suspense and deliberation.

Jhumpa Lahiri has written two short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008). The first collection was about early diaspora life in the US and won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. The second went straight to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, assuring publishers and critics that the short story form was not only acceptable to the literati but was also appreciated commercially.

In Unaccustomed Earth, the first story in the collection, Lahiri tells the story of a man in his seventies who has recently lost his wife and has taken to travelling the world in a tour group. He visits his daughter, who has moved away from Brooklyn to Seattle. While the story has been written in third person, Lahiri begins the story with Ruma, the daughter’s perspective, and then switches over to her father’s perspective. She does this a total of fourteen times, seven times per character, over the course of the fifty-six-page story.

Lahiri allows all of Ruma’s reservations about her father’s visit, her candid thoughts about how much closer she had always been to her mother and her concern that her father may be angling to move in with her, to be revealed. Then, very quietly, with only a single line between paragraphs, she switches to the father’s perspective. Lahiri lets the reader know, quite reliably, that the father is doing okay. He has met a woman on his travels, a Bengali woman. He enjoys travel that doesn’t entail masses of luggage and long tedious flights all the way to India
– the only travel he had experienced while his wife was still alive.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a collection of connected short stories, won the Booker in 2011. Egan’s book is like a maze that starts in the middle and winds around till the reader can exit, feeling satisfied that all the story lines have been closed. Some stories are just little dead ends that go nowhere but are entertaining enough to simply wind through. Others are interconnected throughout, with characters that repeat several times.

Egan’s book is an intricate pattern woven with extreme skill, with dependencies and relationships that cut across sections and chapters. The reader may have to think a moment about a previously played character but Egan’s skills as a storyteller refresh and reintroduce characters skillfully and naturally, without wasting valuable short story real estate.

The short story collection is a fiction format that must continue to be taken as seriously as these two collections were. It is a format that is immensely entertaining and satisfying and one that can be used to tell a small story as well as a very large one.