This book came highly recommended by a writer I met about a month ago. It's a strange, disjointed col...moreOctober 31, 2009
Simple and clean but that's all--
This book came highly recommended by a writer I met about a month ago. It's a strange, disjointed collection of stories about down-and-out "weirdos" living at the fringes of society. The prose is simple and clean, sometimes ethereal, but the stories failed to evoke any strong emotional reaction in me.
The book had the dispassionate and at the same time dreary ring of Camus' L'Etranger and Palahniuk's Fight Club. I'd also compare it with Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho in its apparent meaninglessness.
Overall, the book was interesting enough for me to forge ahead, but not as engrossing as so many other books I've read.
With The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor invents a new type of short story collection: a novel in stories. The first question I had was: How is...moreWith The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor invents a new type of short story collection: a novel in stories. The first question I had was: How is a novel in stories different from a mere collection of interrelated short stories? After examining the book’s similarities to the works we have already read, I will try to answer the question by identifying the necessary elements to make a collection of shorts “a novel in stories.”
Naylor uses some of the devices we have already seen in Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon River. Like George Willard in Winesburg Ohio, Mattie Michael acts as the “protagonist” of the collection, appearing in every story. Other characters reappear many times, too, such as Kiswana Browne, C.C. Baker, and Ben. Naylor also employs the device of the geography as she refers again and again to the hated wall that makes Brewster Place a literal and metaphorical dead-end. Like Main Street and stores in Winesburg, the presence of this wall and frequent mention of it throughout the collection help render the location of Brewster Place more realistic.
Though Naylor uses these familiar devices, she takes them a step further. Unlike the shadowy and blurry character of George Willard, Mattie Michael’s character is much more fleshed out. In fact, her story is the longest, taking up more than fifty pages and divided into five sections that take us through her life. The obvious effect of this is that because we get to know her well, every time we encounter her in someone else’s story, we find her presence both familiar and comforting, sort of in the same way the residents of Brewster Place feel. In contrast, whenever we see George Willard in Winesburg, Ohio, we feel distance toward him and even question his ubiquitous presence. That is, because we don’t get to know him well enough, he remains a stranger to us. A familiar face, yes, but not someone we can trust. Thus, with Mattie, the reader gets to vicariously experience what it’s like to be part of the Brewster Place community.
Another important device she builds on to her advantage is the device of the location. In Winesburg, Ohio, we have seen that certain places, such as Main Street and certain saloons, reappear, lending a physical reality to the fictional town. In The Women of Brewster Places, as we will see below, the location—or a specific feature of the place—serves a far greater purpose, giving legitimacy to the title of “a novel in stories.” Now, to answer the question I posed at the beginning, a novel in stories seems to require an overarching narrative of the place and the community as well as the bringing together of disparate narrative threads. Naylor achieves this by her emphasis on the location of Brewster Place. In fact, the novel begins and ends with an italicized section about the street of Brewster Place. The first section, titled “Dawn” briefly tells the history of Brewster Place, while the second titled “Dusk” tells the aftermath of the place. The first section also sets up expectations that the stories will be about Brewster Place, that the place, and not any individual, is the subject of the book.
If looked at it that way, one central narrative emerges out of the seven stories: Brewster Place undergoing a change, both physically and as a community. In the last story, “The Blcok Party,” three crucial things happen that contribute to its climactic, symphonic effect. First, there’s a kind of bringing-together of previous narrative threads as we see all the main characters in it, with the “protagonist” Mattie Michael’s narrative thread given a new ending as Ciel appears. Second, the community goes through a change by actually managing to organize a block party to raise money to hire a lawyer to sue the neglecting landlord. And finally and most importantly, Brewster Place goes through a physical change when the residents break the wall that makes it a dead-end. Though all this happens in Mattie Michael’s dream, the effect is not diluted, and given the epigraph of the book (“What happens to a dream deferred? … Or does it explode?”) and a reference to a line in Shakespeare’s Tempest in Cora Lee’s story (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”), Mattie’s dream has as much force as the reality the rest of the collection portrays.
In contrast, Winesburg, Ohio cannot be said to have this kind of climactic effect. Though the protagonist goes through some change over the course of the collection, both the place and the community of Winesburg remain unchanged. There is no physical alteration to the town or any change in the community’s behavior. Neither is there a bringing-together of separate narratives as we see in “The Block Party.” Thus, to reiterate and summarize, the following elements seem to be required for a collection of interrelated short stories to be called a novel in stories:
1) Some change to the place and/or the community; and
2) The bringing together of different narrative threads where the reader sees all the main characters and maybe see a new ending to one of the threads.
This conclusion is based on a single work that calls itself “a novel in stories,” and so it’s subject to change. For now, though, these things seem to be necessary for stories to have the effect of a novel.
The book, however, is not without its shortcomings. The two most prominent ones are the blatantness of some of the stories and one-dimensional characters. So for example, Kiswana Browne’s story, mostly made up of dialogue between mother and daughter, lacks subtlety in that they seem to speak what they think. Another example is Luciella Louise Turner’s story where the omniscient voice explains the significance of the bathing scene at the end.
Furthermore, many characters—especially men—are depicted as one-dimensional and stock. So the reader has no sympathy for Mattie Michael’s son who runs away, or for Eugene, Luciella Louise Turner’s husband. Or take the stock characters of C. C. Baker, the leader of the teenage gang and the bigoted Sophie who persecutes Lorraine and Theresa for being lesbians. Despite these shortcomings, The Women of Brewster Place stakes out a new form of the short story collection, and I look forward to how other writers develop this very interesting form.(less)
In Spoon River Anthology, numerous characters refer to one another and create a web of interrelationships. The...moreGood stuff, especially in the beginning.
In Spoon River Anthology, numerous characters refer to one another and create a web of interrelationships. The sheer number of interconnections in turn helps represent the fictional town of Spoon River, a difficult task to accomplish with standalone short stories or even novels focused on one protagonist. The successful representation of the community might be due to the strength of monologues, whose conciseness makes it easier to portray so many connections. Despite the difference in form, however, I think Spoon River Anthology presents an interesting array of techniques and devices that can be imported into fiction. The following are some of them I have identified.
1. Perspectives This is probably the most basic of the devices, where we see the same event from two different perspectives. For example, Roscoe Purkapile says he ran away from home and lied to his wife about what happened when he came home a year later and thinks her wife believed him and all was well. Then we get Mrs. Purakapile’s point of view on the event. She reveals that she pretended to believe Roscoe’s story and didn’t say anything though she knew he was seeing someone else after he came home. Like Akutagawa’s “In the Bamboo Grove” where he uses multiple perspectives to depict a murder, this device can reproduce the real-life experience of looking at the world from some perspective and remind the reader that there is no one objective truth but multiple subjective truths.
2. Dramatic juxtaposition This is where the characters don’t intersect, but the juxtaposition of their perspectives offers something that can’t be offered with only one perspective. For example, Albert Schirding tells of his struggle as a father of successful children and says Jonas Keene, whose children were failures, had an easier lot. The next monologues is picked up by Jonas Keene, who does two things. First, he reveals what happened to Albert Schirding (he killed himself), and second, he says he doesn’t understand why Albert Schirding killed himself with successful children, thereby providing a perspective that’s at odds with Albert Schirding’s. The effect of juxtaposing these two monologues is that the reader gets to see a commonality between them (their loneliness) that the characters themselves don’t see. Another, more poignant case of dramatic juxtaposition is Elisa Wertman and Hamilton Greene, where Elisa gives her illegitimate son to her mistress and later watches her son’s political success with pride. Then we get Hamilton Green’s monologue revealing his complete ignorance of his origin, thereby deepening and making more tragic, his mother’s situation. Again, the juxtaposition provides something that can’t be provided with just one perspective.
3. Sustained narratives These are made up of more than one person’s monologue and tell some kind of story in parts, by different individuals. The simplest example is the story of Tom Merritt, who finds out his wife’s affair and runs after her lover, only to get killed by him. His wife’s monologue then continues the story by revealing what happened after her husband’s death. She also tells the reader her lover’s name. Then in the following monologue, Elmer Karr, the lover, speaks, concluding the short narrative. Another is told by Minerva Jones, “Butch” Weldy, and Roy Butler. Minerva was beaten and possibly raped by Weldy, who, as his monologue shows, turned to religion and became blind as a result of an accident at work. Roy Butler, who was falsely accused and convicted of raping his neighbor’s wife then reveals, ironically, that Weldy was on the jury for the case. As this shows, in interrelated stories, the death of the protagonist seems more easily handled than conventional stories. It may also have the advantage of adding suspense when the protagonist of a story dies, and the story is carried on by another character.
4. Web of References Here, the monologues don’t necessarily form a coherent story, but they refer to other characters who in turn refer to more characters, or refer back to the first set of characters. This one in particular help illuminate interrelationships within the community. This is accomplished by three sets of characters: the Pantier family and Emily Sparks; A.D. Blood, Dora Williams, and Mrs. Williams; and Oscar Hummel and the Purkapiles. It starts off as a simple family portrait. Benjamin Pantier tells how he was kicked out of home and was stuck in a room behind his office with his dog. His wife then speaks, telling us her side of the story and her reasons for kicking him out of the house. Their son, Reuben follows their monologues and speaks fondly of the nurse, Emily Sparks who took care of him. Finally, Emily Spark talks, reciprocating Reuben’s fond feelings. Then later on in the collection, the triplet of A.D. Blood, Dora Williams, and Mrs. Williams refer to the Patntier family, throwing light on the interconnectedness. First, A.D. Blood complains that Dora and Reuben are making love on top of his grave. Then Dora talks, saying she was dumped by Reuben and how she went abroad. The triplet is completed by Mrs. Williams, who thinks Dora has disappeared and seems to cryptically argue in defense of extramarital affairs. This web of interrelationships doesn’t end here. Oscar Hummel further sheds light on A.D. Blood’s character by revealing that he’s a murderer. Then Mrs. Purkapile says she knew his husband, Roscoe Purkapile, was having an affair with Mrs. Williams. As this narrative shows, characters don’t necessarily have to appear as main characters to create a sense of community. Instead, having one set of characters refer to other characters, and having those characters refer to another set or refer back to the first set can show interconnectedness.
5. Minor but powerful character. The ubiquitous presence of a minor but influential character in the stories of many townspeople helps hold together the disparate monologues and illuminate the community. Thus, Thomas Rhodes, the powerful businessman, is mentioned by sixteen individuals, and though he doesn’t play a major role in any of the sustained narratives, his presence is established effectively precisely because so many people refer to him. This can definitely be a useful technique to implement in an interconnected short story collection: a minor yet influential character appearing in many of the stories could depict the community more realistically, for a community is often made up of many members, some more powerful and influential than others. To include a minor but influential character is to pay homage to this aspect of any community.
6. Other devices Other interesting aspects of Spoon River Anthology are the inclusion of historical figures (Anne Rutledge and William H. Herndon) and the appearance of a group as a character (Many soldiers). The former could add, like the minor influential character, reality to the fictional town, locating it in a specific time period. On the other hand, featuring a group as a character (something Faulkner does in Light in August) is a device I’m really interested in, and it may represent a top-down approach to depicting a community, as opposed to a bottom-up approach where the community is shown through the interconnectedness of individuals. The top-down approach can show the big picture of the community, as it can refer to the community itself (or a part of it) as a character. In keeping with this community-as-a-character aspect, many individuals directly address the community in the second person (e.g. Harry Carey Goodhue). Including both approaches may give the reader a more comprehensive sense of the community or group being depicted.
There may be other devices, but it’ll be interesting to see if these devices are used by later writers of interrelated story collections. (less)
Unlike the works we’ve read, Susan Minot’s Monkeys focuses on a single family instead of a town or a street. Told in chronological order, the stories...moreUnlike the works we’ve read, Susan Minot’s Monkeys focuses on a single family instead of a town or a street. Told in chronological order, the stories span thirteen years, from 1966 to 1979, and we see the same cast of characters throughout, which is exactly what’s unifying the collection. After examining the interesting point of view Minot uses in this work, I’ll try to answer if this is a novel or a short story cycle.
The book’s point of view, though it changes from story to story, remains anchored in the family members, especially the children. The first story is told from Sophie’s perspective in first person, the second from her perspective in third person limited. The third story is interesting in that it’s told in a third-person omniscient voice that dips briefly into the father’s point of view (p.49), only to zoom back out to omniscience. But considering there is no authorial intrusion, or the narrator doesn’t seem to know or divulge any information the characters don’t know, the point of view is more objective third person than anything else.
Moving on, the fourth story, “Wildflower,” features an interesting third person limited point of view that shifts around from Caitlin and Sophie to Mum, then back to Caitlin and Sophie, and finally to Caitlin. The next story, “Party Blues” reverts to Sophie’s point of view in third person limited. Then in the sixth story we get distant omniscience where we don’t have access to the consciousness of any of the characters, and we see the interactions of the family members more or less objectively. The seventh story, “Accident,” starts out with Sherman’s third-person-limited point of view, only to shift to Chickey’s halfway through the story. In “Wedlock,” the point of view is more objective, or “communal,” like in the third story as we see the interactions of the children without access to their consciousness. Finally, in “Thorofare,” although the point of view sticks close to Sophie, it seems objective for the most part as our access to Sophie’s consciousness is limited, even effaced.
The effect of this mix different points of view throughout the collection is that I wasn’t sure whose point of view I was in as I read each story and in my mind they melded together into the single point of view: that of the family. Although there is a preponderance of Sophie’s point of view, Monkeys represents a more fragmented mixture, a clear departure from the omniscient point of view we saw in Winesburg, Ohio and The Women of Brewster Place. (I have to add that there’s a move from uniformity to fragmentation, as Winesburg, Ohio is told in uniform, distant omniscience, The Women of Brewster Place in omniscience that zooms into the characters’ minds.)
So is Monkeys a novel in stories, like The Women of Brewster Place, or a more loosely connected short story cycle like Winesburg, Ohio? Minot gives us an interesting example here, and I argue that the distinction admits of degrees and that Monkeys is closer to the novel than to the short story cycle. As I argued in my review of The Women of Brewster Place, some of the elements of a novel in stories include: 1) the place and/or the community goes through a change; and 2) there’s a bringing-together of different narrative threads where the reader sees all the main characters. By these standards, Minot’s Monkeys qualifies as a novel in stories. The second condition is automatically fulfilled since we follow the same family for the duration of the book. Then the first condition is also fulfilled: With the death of the mother, the family goes through a change as they are forced to cope with her absence and seem to overcome it as a family.
But the distinction is not as clear-cut as it may seem at first glance. Unlike a novel, Monkeys has no sustained narrative arc. Though we follow the same set of characters like in a novel and the book portrays a family that goes through a change, the stories themselves remain loosely connected like the tales of Winesburg, Ohio. I’d even go further and say that the collection is not “interconnected,” but just “connected” because we don’t see the kind of perspective shift we get in “The Strength of God” and “The Teacher” in Winesburg, Ohio or interconnectivity where we see characters from one story reappearing in other stories. Moreover, each story in Monkeys doesn’t have a consequence in the next and can stand on its own. Monkeys, therefore, is not as novelistic as The Women of Brewster Place.
It follows from this that the distinction between “novel in stories” and “short story cycle” admits of degrees. I’d place Winesburg, Ohio on one end of the spectrum, toward the short story cycle, and The Women of Brewster Place on the other end, near the novel. Using this spectrum, Monkeys stands closer to the novel in stories, though not as much as The Women of Brewster Place.
Monkeys also illustrates the importance of communal actions when looking at novels in stories. Interestingly, like the climax of The Women of Brewster Place, the book ends with a communal action: the Vincents throw the ashes of their dead mother into the harbor. This is significant because it’s the only story in which the father really participates in an activity with his children. In fact, the story collection begins with the exclusion of the father as the children and their mother hide from their father. And throughout the book, it is the mother who keeps the family together as the father engages in anti-social behavior. Even when they go to Bermuda together in “Allowance,” the father remains aloof, even down-right bizarre during the dinner. Or when they go on a picnic in “The Navigator,” though they are together, the father is clearly isolated from the rest of the family as he starts drinking a beer when he promised he wouldn’t drink anymore.
This consideration leads me to add “communal action” to the list of elements present in novels in stories. I’d also rename the list from “required elements” to “important characteristics.” This is because it seems to me that any interrelated short story collection that calls itself “a novel” will share some of the characteristics, but probably not all. This is true to the spectrum quality of the distinction: the more characteristics from the list an interrelated short story collection possesses, the closer it is to the novel, and the less characteristics from the list it has, the farther from the novel and closer to the short story cycle.
To summarize, a novel in stories may have the following characteristics:
1) A change to the place and/or the community;
2) A bringing together of different narrative threads where the reader sees all the main characters;
3) A communal action as the climax.
Again, this list is subject to change, and I look forward to learning more about the form and making changes to the list. (less)
In How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez follows in the steps of Susan Minot’s Monkeys in focusing on a single family and develops th...moreIn How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez follows in the steps of Susan Minot’s Monkeys in focusing on a single family and develops the family genre. After examining some of the notable devices she employs in the book, I will determine where I’d place the book in the novel-cycle spectrum. Alvarez elaborates on Minot’s device of listing the family members in the beginning of the book by including a detailed family tree, thereby emphasizing the sisters’ origins. And later we will see that the concept of origins becomes an important theme throughout the book. So like in Minot’s book, it lays out a theme of the book and teaches the reader how to read the book: it’s going to be about the family and not just any individual.
Probably one of the most prominent devices she employs is the constantly changing point of view. In fact, each section has its own dominant characteristic with respect to point of view. The first section focuses on Yolanda, and like Sophie in Monkeys, she emerges as a central figure, with three out of five stories in the section told from her point of view in first person. Also interesting is that, throughout the book, she gets to tell her stories in first person more than anyone else (four times) and the book begins and ends with her narrative.
In the second section, Alvarez diverges from this focus on a single character and emphasizes the collective experience of the family in the U.S. by using different points of view. The first chapter of the second section, “A Regular Revolution,” is told from the collective point of view of the sisters, in first person plural. Then we move outside of the sisters and inhabit the point of view of their mother in the following story, “Daughter of Invention.” The next three stories are then told from the point of view of Carla, Yolanda, and Sanid respectively. Fifi’s story is conspicuously absent from this section, but this is fitting as she is exiled in “A Regular Revolution” to the Dominican Republic.
By shifting perspective and never having the same character’s point of view repeated, this section successfully portrays the family’s experience as a whole. This is a technique Minot uses in her Monkeys, albeit to a lesser degree. Also, the use of first person plural to depict the sisters’ collective experience is an interesting technique, one that works particularly well for the first story of the section as it comes after a series of first person and third person limited narratives and helps signal the reader to read the section differently.
A similar dramatic change in point of view occurs in the beginning of the third section. Whereas the second section focused on the family, “The Blood of the Conquistadores” goes beyond the family’s perspective and tells the story in shifting third person limited and switches to first person in the second half, going through twelve different points of view. This seems to prepare the reader to read the section differently. In fact, the third section is dominated by the first person point of view. The second half of the first story is narrated in first person from Fifi and Chuchu’s points of view. Then the remaining four stories of the section are all told in first person from the points of view of, respectively, Yolanda, Sandi, Carla, and back to Yolanda. Overall, like in Monkeys, the constantly shifting point of view might be a good way of effectively representing the collective experience of the family, since all the different perspectives blur themselves and blend into the single point of view of the family.
Another important device Alvarez uses is the way she organizes the stories, in reverse chronological order. The first section focuses on the girls’ adult lives; the second the family’s immigrant experience in the U.S.; and the third the family’s life in the Dominican Republic. What does this reverse chronology accomplish? There’s a sense of excavation when you go backwards in time. As in any flashback, going back in time seems to have the effect of deepening the reader’s understanding of the characters. This ties directly with the title of the book: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. By presenting the Americanized sisters first, Alvarez may be trying to make us curious about what the sisters had to go through to get there. In a sense, she’s presenting the reader with a mystery: how do you think they changed? Then bit by bit, she reveals their roots, the trajectory of their journey, to surprise us with what they had to go through. In other words, she sets up certain assumptions about the sisters in the first section, only to break them later. For example, Yolanda in the first story seems like she’s just another American—privileged, well-adjusted, and forgetting her parents’ language. Then in subsequent chapters we learn she went insane and was put in a mental institution (in “Joe”). Same thing with the other sisters. Their well-adjusted selves are presented first, then layer by layer, their past struggles are revealed.
What would be lost if Alvarez organized the collection chronologically? I suspect some of the surprise in finding out the sisters’ past may be lost. Also lost might be the important theme of “return” and “origins” implied in Yolanda’s return to the Dominican Republic in the first story. After adjusting to the U.S., she returns to her country, to her roots. This theme is played out and underlined by the structure that is itself a kind of returning, a journey back into the past. It is therefore fitting that the book ends with the little Yolanda in the Dominican Republic: her return, her getting in touch with her past and her roots, is complete. And also fitting that a whole family tree is presented in the beginning to reinforce this idea of return.
Switching gears, is How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents a novel, or a short story cycle? Using the criteria from my response paper to Monkeys, it’s probably less novelistic than Monkeys, but more so than Winesburg, Ohio. The collection is novelistic in that it involves the same cast of characters and chronicles their change over time (how they adjusted to the U.S.). But it’s like the short story cycle in that the stories are loosely held together; you can cut any one story without affecting the rest of the story. The collection is less novelistic than Monkeys just because there is no communal action. (less)
Moving away from portraying a community (Spoon River, Winesburg, and The Women of Brewster Place) or a family (Monkeys and Garcia Girls), Tom Perrotta...moreMoving away from portraying a community (Spoon River, Winesburg, and The Women of Brewster Place) or a family (Monkeys and Garcia Girls), Tom Perrotta offers us another possibility in the genre of the story cycle. His Bad Haircut follows the same protagonist, Buddy, from the first person point of view, and covers the period between 1969 and 1980, with the bulk of the collection dealing with his high school years.
Like Monkeys, there is not much “interconnectedness” because the whole collection is told from the single point of view of Buddy instead of from various perspectives. Also, characters don’t reappear and one story doesn’t affect other stories. There are, as far as I’m aware, only two instances of references within the collection: in “Snowman,” the basketball Buddy stole in the previous story appears briefly (p.89), and in “The Jane Pasco Fan Club,” he mentions Laura Daly from the previous story. In other words, the collection is more “episodic” than “interconnected” and the stories themselves remain fairly independent.
This brings up another point about the looseness of the collection and its novelistic characteristic. Like the stories of Winesburg, Ohio, the stories of Bad Haircut are loose and can stand on their own, but like those of Monkeys and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, they tell much more when read together than when they are read separately. Because we follow Buddy as he grows up and faces sex, relationships, drugs, and death, our understanding of the character is deepened by the end. But understanding Buddy doesn’t mean we see him change fundamentally. Throughout the collection, he remains ultimately a “spectator,” as driver’s ed teacher aptly calls him in “You Start to Live.” He is “happy to just stand around and watch,” and he doesn’t “take charge of the situation” (p.136). He stays this way from the beginning to the end, and none of his encounters with other characters, or his experience of the death of his neighbor in the final story seems to have much effect on him. He also doesn’t seem to have much agency throughout the collection and we don’t see him in a position to make a difficult choice and change because of it. That is, we see him grow, but not change fundamentally.
This leads to an interesting feature of this collection and the previous two books: their whole is greater than their parts. I would probably add this to the list of characteristics that novelistic collections share. And so to compile the list again, a collection of interconnected stories is said to be “novelistic” when it has one or more of the following:
1) A fundamental change to the place and/or the community or the protagonist;
2) A bringing together of different narrative threads where the reader sees all the main characters;
3) A communal action as the climax.
4) The stories, when read together, tell more than when they are read independently, usually deepening the reader’s understanding of the character(s).
Given this list, is Bad Haircut a coming-of-age novel? Though it certainly has a novelistic feature (#4), it’s closer to the story cycle end of the spectrum. So I’d resist the label “novel” with respect to this book and call it a coming-of-age story cycle.
A story cycle, then, is any collection of loosely held stories organized around some single location or set of characters, and it may have one or more of the characteristics listed above. Which is to say all the books we have read so far are story cycles, but some are more novelistic than others. The Women of Brewster Place is definitely the most novelistic of all, and Bad Haircut the least, though it does have a novelistic characteristic. The important point here is that any given story cycle, or collection of interconnected short stories, can share the characteristics of the novel listed above and place itself closer or farther away from the novel. And if a story cycle has enough characteristics of the novel, it can be called a “novel” (or “a novel in stories”). How many are enough? Since the distinction of “novel” in the case of story cycles runs in a spectrum, it’s ultimately up to the author or the reader to decide.
Moving onto another topic, one technical lesson to be learned from Bad Haircut is that the main character of a story cycle needs to be likable, which may translate to “inoffensive.” Buddy is an inoffensive character who manages to get into a lot of trouble, almost always getting dragged into it. But more importantly, what makes him likable is probably his humor that comes across in his prose. So for example in “Snowman,” when he fights with the lifeguard and rolls down the hill, he tells us: “He pounded me ineffectually on the back while I bled profusely on his coat, rubbing my nose with malicious pleasure back and forth across the sheepskin until I was almost drunk from the smell of it” (71).
More than Monkeys or How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Perotta’s Bad Haircut shows a unique advantage of the story cycle: it offers the writer a greater freedom to explore a historical period. First, the inherent looseness of the form allows for the freedom to write whatever you want without having to adhere to a pre-planned outline of events or a dominant story arc. Also, because the protagonist is the same throughout, there’s no need to forcefully connect characters as the writer jumps from one year to the next. This means you can write about various aspects of the period without worrying about plot or larger issues while at the same time being able to give the reader a sense of character growth and a deeper understanding of the protagonist. The only thing the writer needs to do is to move the stories through a period, as Perotta does through the seventies. This advantage may be pronounced in the first person cycle like in Bad Haircut. First, the sense of character growth is probably greater with one central protagonist than, say, a family. Second, speaking of practicality, it might be easier or more manageable to focus on a single main character throughout since you don’t have to keep track of a large cast of characters (as in Monkeys), or figure out what each member is doing every time you move to the next story.
Overall, Bad Haircut showed me another strength of the genre, and broadened my understanding of the story cycle and its relationship to the novel.
Paola Corso’s Catina’s Haircut chronicles four generations of the Del Negro family as they struggle in post-Unification...moreShouldn't have been published--
Paola Corso’s Catina’s Haircut chronicles four generations of the Del Negro family as they struggle in post-Unification southern Italy and immigrate to the U.S. Although it is titled “a novel in stories,” I strongly disagree with its claim.
I have to admit, though, there are some novelistic features, especially in the first half. Unlike Jesus’ Son or Bad Haircut, there are some consequences. Giorgio in the second story obstinately refuses to leave San Procopio partly because of what happened to his parents in the previous story, and the third story, “Hell and High Water” takes place in the U.S., after Giorgio in the previous story makes up his mind to move to the U.S. The last story of the collection comes full circle with Giorgio’s granddaughter’s quest for the Fata Morgana (which appears in the second story) and ends with the same italicized passage that opens the first story. Additionally, Corso uses now familiar linkage devices to unify the collection: the same set of characters reappear and are referred to throughout the collection, and the same object—Giorgio’s green felt hat—appears in three stories, reinforcing continuity.
But the book lacks other novelistic features—not to mention its length—and the second half of the book poses a problem to the unity of the book. There is no culmination in the form of communal action. Nor do we see the family going through a fundamental change as a result of their immigration (like in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents). Then the novelistic features I listed above drop away in the second half with those two off-shoots of stories: “Catina’s Haircut” and “Flash Light.” Though they are related to the Del Negro family in remote, contrived ways, they have little to do with the family per se and have no consequence to the central narrative of the family. Furthermore, “Catina’s Haircut,” because it’s told in a very different aesthetic mode from the rest, weakens the unity of the book. It is an interesting, surreal story, but the book, being an otherwise fairly realistic family saga, does not prepare the reader for such a story.
So what is this book? I’m hesitant to call this a novel or even a novella. Maybe a novella-length family-saga story cycle with some novelistic characteristics, but definitely not a novel.
There are some serious shortcomings, too. To name a few, many of the Italian words peppered throughout the first two stories seem totally unnecessary and even outright annoying. In fact, the sheer number of Italian words makes the reader think that the author has not much confidence (or knowledge for that matter) in portraying the culture any other way and so has to rely on foreign words, thus intentionally or not, exoticizing the locale. A few well-chosen words add color to the culture, but too many can be a sign of cultural ineptitude. Second, there are some outright unrealistic parts that threw me off: how much Celestina’s English improves over the course of mere nine days in “Hell and High Water.” Though the author tries to make it plausible by having her brother help with her English, her English by the end of the story is way too natural as to be unbelievable. (less)
I didn't get him. When I read his As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom! Absalom! a few years ago. I liked L...moreIn love with Faulkner (4.5)—
I didn't get him. When I read his As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom! Absalom! a few years ago. I liked Light in August, but I couldn't appreciate his style. And I guess for everything there is a season. Then I came back, and it happened to be in the right season, when my preoccupation was not storytelling but style and sentence rhythm. It has to do with my progress as a writer as I'm able to appreciate fiction for other than their plot.
I relished, no reveled in, Faulkner's meandering sentences. I loved his themes of blood and curse, race and history. After reading this excellent collection of interrelated stories, I'm tempted to go back and reread his classics, especially Absalom! Absalom! since I don't think I was *there* yet.
The stories included here are very accessible, though you probably need to look for the McCaslin family tree online and reference it (I copied into the book, and it helped tremendously).
Overall, unique prose with great cadence, and gripping stories. (it gets 4.5 only because the collection wasn't as novelistic as I hoped, and the climax was felt rather flat).(less)