The Unfinished World of the Short Story
The Unfinished World and Other Stories
“Because of this, the short story can do anything it likes with notions of time; it moves and works spatially regardless of whether it adheres to chronology or conventional plot. It is an elastic form; it can be as imagistic and achronological as it likes and it will still hold its form. In this it emphasizes the momentousness of the moment. At the same time it deals in, and doesn’t compromise on, the purely momentary nature of everything, both timeless and transient.”
Part 1: Understanding Amber Sparks
Amber Sparks’s new collection of stories, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, is aptly named. It contains the frustration, if not the paradox, that all short stories do: that the time represented within the story is all the reader receives, but which cannot possibly give the fullness of life itself. There’s something incomplete about all fiction, something “unfinished.” In stories, all we have is felt life. But is this life enough? Is it more than life? The absolute theoretical ideal of simultaneity had its best chance probably in Baudelaire. In our contemporary era, many of the short stories labeled “new fabulist” are fantastical, and they can bank a little too often on comic effect. We have many examples of languorously weird not-so-short fiction. But we also see an equally intense celebration of all varieties of the short form in our time, going far past the literary realism so popular in the U.S. for so long.
If novels need time to dawn on us, then all the more pressure for the short story to measure up to expectations in a short and sweet and smartly made package—and so it’s notable that Amber Sparks chooses to play with time so boldly in stories such as “The Logic of the Loaded Heart,” “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting,” and “The Men and Women Like Him,” but the story that caught and kept my attention most of all in this collection was “We Were Holy Once.”
In this beautifully, crookedly wrought story, a voice declares: “We’re always going to be one step ahead. We see things most folks can’t. We see the dead, and we see the real ugly souls of the living. And we see better in the dark than you.”
And what could be more prescient than creatures in charge of glow-in-the-dark truth itself? Of course, this is a voice of corruption. It can have us swooning like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, or it can take other tones, as in the collection’s final story “The Sleepers,” prophesying vaguely and anesthetizing us with half-regrets and bloodless outcomes: “You are coming, the seers would tell them, down the centuries you will ride until at last you reach us. You are coming to save us, they would say. And the sleepers would nod, and sleep on, and sleep on. They are now forgotten mostly, remembered in dreams and stories, through poems and song. They want to be forgotten, they need to be forgotten—for the consequences of waking have grown too great.”
Short stories in the hands of Amber Sparks are built on strange situations, to a degree fantastical ones (despite the slipperiness of that term), ones that involve a mythical air or the willingness to take a flight of fancy across time and space, sometimes a literal flight. Each story in The Unfinished World is particular, its own jewel.
But that has to do with their outer presentation. You unwrap them, and they feel more akin to the spirit of Flannery O’Connor. They are aiming for these truths, occasionally flirting with meta-truth (about the nature of fiction and language), but mostly truth about humanity, what we do to each other, how we live and love and die. So that despite the strange or the fantastic elements at play, there is a human truth in these stories that connects and doesn’t let go, much in the same way Charles Baxter describes a good story: “The truth about a situation is always big enough to sustain someone’s attention.”
In “The Janitor in Space,” we receive these words: “Death is the opposite of lonely, and lonely is the only thing the janitor owns. It is the only thing that’s hers. And that makes loneliness beautiful, out here among the cold and bright beginnings.” The story “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly” desires an impossible intimacy with history. We are denied intimacy with the events that come before us—felt time isn’t ours to have beyond the span of our individual lives—and the 1790s German phenomenon of the Leichenhäuser in all its grotesquerie is used to launch a reflective, vivid thought experiment-slash-love letter on the mystery of death in roughly seven pages of prose. “For These Humans Who Cannot Fly” is told in first-person point of view, one of only two stories, out of the total nineteen, to be told the first-person point of view (the other is “La Belle de Nuit, La Belle de Jour”). It begins with a big, luscious sentence: “Every death is a love story. It’s the goodbye part, but the love is still there, wide as the world.” The story dips into dementedness with the surprising ease and deftness I had been craving from the earlier parts of the collection:
She loved animals even more than she loved me, and we always had a cat or two in the house along with the dogs, mice, chickens, hedgehogs, goats, and sometimes even pigs. We never had birds because my wife couldn’t stand to see them caged. She sang on the stage, but soon grew to fancy herself an actual songbird. She would chirp and whistle instead of speaking and flap her arms as though they were wings. She started digging worms out of the soft earth in the early mornings, crushing them with her moon-smile and leaving pink fleshy bits in her teeth.
The interest is held because the reader follows the thoughts of the first-person narrator as he builds these death houses all across Europe, listening to his mad wife gush bizarre confessions: that she had been watching suicide jumpers leap off the high bridge for years and that the sound of their deaths was “glacial, glassy,” and that she has pity “for these humans who cannot fly,” as the title promises. The wife is locked away in an insane asylum. The husband does his professional best to contain death, madness, the secretions that ooze out of a reasonable life, and he focuses on his work with the simplicity of a carpenter, the wisdom of a theologian, the pragmatism of someone in customer service at Home Depot. This straight and even tone, delivered in the voice of a man who builds death houses for a living, contrasted against the mad wife, is the secret to the efficacy of this story. He wonders about her madness, her capacity ever to return to the land of logic and common rationality—“would she have realized halfway down, checking her thin shoulder blades, surprised like anything that the wings she thought she saw that morning seemed to have disappeared like smoke?”—and yet he is engaged in a form of systematic madness of his own, as he builds his first Leichenhaus for his dead wife, “I knew she was dead, of course I knew, but at the same time I doubted.” All because his dead wife’s lips are parted, seemingly ready to speak. Is language a beginning rather than an ending?
With a range of mechanics on display in tone, time, and language, it’s still the truth of humanity that each of these stories carries us to, usually revealed in open, lucidly crafted sentences, within which fantastical scenarios yield to traditional measures—to worthy effect.
Part 2: A Question for Readers
The novel is bound to linearity even when it explicitly denies its relationship to the linearity of time. The short story, according to Ali Smith, embraces the fragmentation of time, anti-linearity and the “momentousness” of the moment. In Ali Smith’s analysis of the differences between the novel and the short story, the operative term is “imagistic,” as she argues that the novel and the short story are two separate forms that handle time in significantly different ways. The short story is designed to handle the purely momentary nature of our lives passing us by despite our efforts to live it, engage it, make it into something tangible. And yet it is also meant, as a literary form, to handle the timeless, akin to a photograph, or a painting: the image and the short story are seen as analogous. The short story doesn’t compromise, when it’s done well, on the nature of time. Its brevity can contain the obsessive cocoon of so much more, if executed with grace, control, purity.
What do we, as readers, want from a short story, with respect to its treatment of time?
Perhaps as short story readers we don’t hope to fall in love: the cliché is that a novel is a love affair, while a short story is a one-night stand. Falling in love takes time. A reader who picks up a novel may hope to fall in love, or to feel carried away for a substantial length of time. That need exists in all of us, and it is a rather beautiful thing.
This past winter, I attended the Selected Shorts reading at Symphony Space, featuring the authors Don DeLillo and Joy Williams. Joy Williams said that the short story wasn’t meant to be comforting. Joy said it was designed to do the opposite. Applause erupted in the audience; I may have let out an expletive of joy. I don’t know, that may be a different type of love altogether. A love of risk, of wanting to plunge into disorienting territory, a willingness to take apart what we once familiarly loved, who knows. We want, as readers, something more than what we’re used to being given. If that’s the case, how does time play into that expectation?
In the February issue of Bookforum, Christine Smallwood wrote “A short story is read all at once, and alone. It might get knitted into life if it is reread many times over the years, but it always arrives complete, a thing apart and sufficient unto itself, like an asteroid. It is at once smaller and more vulnerable than a novel, and stranger and stiffer, somehow more independent. It doesn’t ask for attachment. It asks only to be heard.”
(The first short story I read that fit the entirety of that description was “First Love,” by Samuel Beckett.) However, one could also argue that an asteroid doesn’t care if it’s heard; it’s coming your way regardless. How prepared for its impact are you?
So, time dilates and contracts in a short story as it will, but it has one shot to deliver the goods. If it is small and vulnerable, only able to sustain itself as an isolated form, then it is taking and manipulating the concept of time in small and vulnerable moments. And then it takes the small, vulnerable moments to create a world larger than expected with the most meagre of materials—I argue that act of magic is critical to the arrival of the short story in one’s heart and mind, it thuds inside of you with both vulnerability and exactitude of detail, mingled with the damned arrogance to say, don’t love me, I don’t need you. It has made its statement and your expectations will be satisfied and warped in its hands at the same time. That doesn’t sound like a plea for a listening, sympathetic audience. That sounds approximate to a near-callousness that began, before it unfortunately flourished, in the reader’s imagination as a humble invitation to come closer. Short stories are poisonous things.
Is this true of Sparks’s collection, The Unfinished World? Do I feel that it has effectively poisoned me?
The answer to this question is yes. I do feel that it has arrived in my veins. And the story that launched my meditation on the form itself was “The Fever Librarian.” I love this story. Amber Sparks has reached her most alluring tone, a tone of inevitability mixed with a description of the world as a series of facts that we recognize as such, but cracked open, the facts are uglier than we imagined, the everyday is more disturbing than we thought, the loneliness of a single individual can be as all-encompassing as a solar eclipse. Words swirl around the phenomenon of the character, the character’s situation, with abstract force and tenderness. They land, they arrive as statements that burrow deeper into the words themselves rather than release the character from her situation: “One would do better to forget the Fever Librarian’s name as soon as one has learned it. She would do better to forget her own. The opposite of melancholy is fierce, bright delirium. It has a name: fever, also known as pyrexia, comes from the Greek pur, meaning fire.”
“The Fever Librarian” is a beautiful story with the cooing, lulling rhythms of a fable, but dark at its core. It is a struggle between sanitized rationality and roiling emotions, the heart-lurking emotions that threaten to take it all down, take down propriety, science, table manners, and any sense of civilized, collaborative, stupidly inapplicable “let’s aim for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.” This woman, this poor frozen woman called the Fever Librarian is an employee of The Eternal Library, where she aids the Library’s central goal of locking up the fevers, the stuff of life that would apparently be an unending disaster for the future of humanity.
Sparks displays a playful yet clear-headed style. Her sentences are calm, easy and free, and often sly:
There are only working hours for the fever librarian. These triple-lined, carefully cooled cabinets are full of all the fevers man and god could dream up: alchemy, Cat-Scratch Fever, Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, goldfish swallowing, Dr. Spock, Trench Fever. Acid wash, chariot racing, ant farms, holy wars, hula hoops, Humidifier Fever, monkeys on television.
The touch is light, it sweeps over time with the feeling of a fairy godmother and you look more closely to realize it’s not pixie dust but sprinkles of time’s own savagery.
Time’s own savagery is part of the author’s ability to use structure to maximum effect in the short story’s compressed form. The totalité de l’effet, the stylings of the author to create a narrative structure—a narrative moment, or sequence of moments—that produce a total unity perceived simultaneously as a whole, is at stake in the short story. This makes the short story sound much closer to a poem than a novel, as the poem is often thought of the main literary form intended to be grasped as a single and complex whole.
The structure of the short story deepens as a whole, producing a simultaneity, a verbal tableau, yet not in the sense of being devoid of movement (the short story must give the impression of movement, it isn’t a static form by essence, the compression of language is compromised, in a sense, by the art of perspective, voice, dialogue, swirlings of a narrator’s consciousness and so on), rather that all the sentences, the pieces of language are on the board to be played with at once, for the reader who wishes to revel drunkenly in it.
The poem and the short story have this in common—a desire to produce a multiplicity of evocations with minimal parts. The author achieves this effect through authorial magic; and no, it is never, as an aesthetic practice, finished. But in The Unfinished World, Amber Sparks has exhibited plenty of magic.