Short stories often get something of a bum rap, and collections of them are notorious for being hard to sell in significant quantities. I suspect this has something to do with how difficult it is to define them: they’re not quite novels, but not exactly poems or essays either, inhabiting a nebulous position somewhere in between.
Howard Nemerov is typically dismissive of short fiction, though he doesn’t exactly employ typical imagery:
‘Short stories amount for the most part to parlor tricks, party favors with built-in snappers, gadgets for inducing recognitions and reversals: a small pump serves to build up the pressure, a tiny trigger releases it, there follows a puff and a flash as freedom and necessity combine; finally a celluloid doll drops from the muzzle and descends by parachute to the floor. These things happen, but they happen to no-one in particular.’
Nemerov’s lively metaphors (and god-awful American spelling) aside, there is some justice to the view that short fiction is a rather shallow amusement. Can you think of many short stories that have burned themselves onto your memory in the way poems or novels have?
There are a few, for me – but remarkably few, when I come to think about it. The Loaded Dog by Henry Lawson, naturally; The Virgin and the Gypsy by D H Lawrence; The Last Days of Muhammad Atta by Martin Amis; The Lady With the Dog by Chekhov, of course…
But then I start to run out.
And do I really like Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants? Nah. Can The Old Man and the Sea be considered to be a short story? Maybe… It’s damned good, whatever it is.
Anyway. Where was I? Let’s see… Short stories, bum rap, hard to remember many of them, few outstanding classics of the form.
Andrew Porter is America’s answer to Tim Winton. And I don’t mean that as a compliment to Porter, or to American letters.
The Theory of Light & Matter is Porter’s debut collection – ten stories which, the blurb promises, ‘offer a stunning vision of contemporary American suburbia’. Can you hear that? It’s the sound of warning bells.
Porter’s Americans bear an uncanny resemblance to Winton’s Australians: they are young enough to have their lives ahead of them, but old enough to have screwed everything up. Reading The Theory of Light & Matter I was reminded irresistibly of Winton’s collection Minimum of Two. There’s the same sense of helplessness in the face of poor decisions, the same dissatisfactions, the same gloomy (and utterly banal) prescience that life is unlikely to consist exclusively of froth and bubbles.
When Porter can rein in his prose, he can be effective, in a brutal sort of way: Skin, barely a page and a half long, goes off like a hand-grenade even though it traces the very same emotional trajectory all the other stories do.
In every story the emotional trajectory goes like this: the narrator (all of the stories are written in the first person) will be experiencing difficulties with some significant person in their lives (spouse, friend, parent, sibling, lover); while the narrator is essentially good and dignified, the significant person will not be. The narrator will struggle to find balance and satisfaction in circumstances conspiring to deny them either. No good comes of anything. Gloom descends.
There’s nothing wrong with Porter’s prose: it’s clean, assured and free from infelicities. But it’s not exciting, it’s not spellbinding and nor are the themes it expresses.
The Theory of Light & Matter is difficult to complain about, but impossible to get enthusiastic about. It’s like the signature meal of a non-culinary housemate – perfectly satisfactory but plain.