Short story collections don’t sell. You’d think that they would– if we’re to believe what people keep saying about the shrinking attention span of American readership.
So I started watching The Wire now that my friend is loaning me the DVDs, and while it took a while to get going, it’s living up to its reputation, without question.
Where was I? Right, so the question is, what do you do in this business if you’re a better short story writer than a novelist?
You don’t need to change much, actually. You can turn a short story collection into a novel by taking a character in one piece and… ahhh, let’s say… making her the daughter of some other character’s boss from another. BAM–continuity! I’d like to think you don’t need to do that to win the Pulitzer Prize, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both short-story-collections-as-novels, are the last two books to take the award for fiction. So maybe it helps.
I can tell you which one’s the better book, and it’s the one where the connections between the stories and characters are actually weaker.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is thirteen stories, most of which take place in New York and involve a whole nexus of characters. Arguably at the center of this nexus are former punk rocker Bennie Salazar– who met with success as a record producer but is struggling to break his obsession with the past– and Sasha, his assistant, a kleptomaniacal beauty with a checkered past (who is more influential to the other characters than her actual character seems to justify).
Half the connections among the characters feel unnatural, especially since we’re operating within a very large population and span of time. You could argue that the continuity is thematic. They’re all about the shared experiences of music, right? And time?
But my favorite story here, “Selling the General,” actually has nothing to do with either. In it, Dolly, the former queen of celebrity public relations is making a comeback by taking on the account of a genocidal dictator who, as one readily understands, is in great need of a PR consultant. Dolly convinces a Hollywood starlet to pose with the general to boost his appeal and dampen the indictment of his crimes against humanity, and the shoot goes terribly awry. On the surface, the story is a light, farcical send-up of the power of image and the media. But when you consider the starlet’s complicated motives and the reactions of Dolly’s scary little daughter, the story plunges into the realm of disturbing.
The other favorite of mine is the last piece, “Pure Language,” which to me reads like dystopian literature. The thing is a marvel– considering that it’s harder, in some ways, to convincingly predict what the world will be like in ten years than in fifty. Its plot marks the heavily orchestrated comeback of punk rocker Scotty Hausman, a derelict soloist who in 2021 spends his days fishing in the East River. And thanks to an army of bloggers paid to hype him up, thousands of New Yorkers gather to see a guy sit down and play a slide guitar. The crowd comes away lauding the stripped-down performance for being “pure.” But the event was constructed by a manufactured campaign of liars. Does that inauthentic gathering make the music, the experience less authentic? Like with Woodstock, “it may be that the crowd at a particular moment in history creates the object to justify its gathering.”
Last year this book pulled the upset on the media’s million dollar baby Jonathan Franzen and his Freedom for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. While I really liked Freedom, Egan’s is the more deserving book. Both carry the “This is Us, America!” presumption that makes the award panelists go hard, but Goon Squad is perhaps more cerebral while being more widely appealing. Awards don’t guarantee an obscure author a lasting audience, but here’s hoping it does in this case.