How should one read a short story collection? On ‘Intimacies’ by Lucy Caldwell

So Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies was one of my May reads, but I’ve split off into a separate blog to write about it, because I found it so interesting. I’ll say straight out that it is a great collection of stories, which much of the same calm, wry, politically and socially observant writing as her debut collection, Multitudes, but the reason I want to write about it (and not just it) is something different from just the quality.

I’ll also say second out that I met Lucy last year, when she kindly agreed to talk with me, and Michael Hughes and David Collard, for the Irish Literary Society about my poem Spring Journal and its connection to Louis MacNeice, of whom she is a great fan, as evidenced by her Twitter handle @beingvarious, and in fact the great anthology of contemporary Irish short stories of the same title that she edited; and she was kind enough to say some words about the book, which were used for a blurb. So I am in her debt for that.

And but so…

Short story collections.

I own maybe 100 single-author individual collections, as opposed to anthologies or Collecteds, but I’ve got no idea how many of them I’ve read in their entirety. I do read plenty of short stories, not least because of A Personal Anthology, the short story project I curate, which pushes me weekly in all sorts of directions, some of them new, some of them old, but when I do read stories I mostly read one, two or at most three stories by a particular author at a time.

This partly comes down to the practicalities of reading. A short story you can read in the bath, and a long decadent bath with bubbles and candles might stretch to three or four, depending on the writer. Or, as I have done this afternoon, sitting outside in the garden, reading ‘Heaven’, the final story in Mary Gaitskill’s seminal Bad Behaviour, a story which… but now’s not the time.

But seriously: what a story!

What I generally don’t do is read collections in order, from start to finish. I appreciate that this might be annoying for authors, who presumably put some effort into sequencing their collections, but a collection isn’t like a music album – not quite – which lends itself almost exclusively to listening in order. (I remember when CD players came out, and the novelty of random play. It’s not something I would ever do now, and I find it annoying that it seems to be a default setting on Spotify.)

The reason why I don’t tend to read collections in order, is partly because I like reading stories in isolation. I think it’s a Good Idea. If – to be reductive about it – novels are a writer doing one big thing, slowly, and stories are writers doing a small thing, over and over, then there is a risk, in reading a collection in one go, of seeing a writer repeat themselves. After all, they most likely wrote the stories to be read individually. Read me here, doing my thing, in The New Yorker. Read me here, doing my thing again, in Granta. And here I am, doing something similar but different in The Paris Review.

Some collections of stories are just that: agglomerations of pieces that have individual lives of their own, published here and there, and their coming-together is primarily a commercial rather than an artistic act. Some collections are more integrated than that, more self-sufficient or autarchic, having no particular dependence on anything outside of its little biosphere.

As I tweeted about the theme of this blog, John Self mentioned David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as two collections that operate like this, that need to be read in order. He’s right, though annoyingly I don’t have either to hand. The Vann I think is in a box in the loft, and I’ve never owned a copy of Jesus’ Son, despite it being a touchstone of sorts. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is another example, with its famous ambiguity as to whether it’s a novel or a collection of stories, but that has the oddity that I think you could read it in any order.

There must be others. I might think further and come back to this. You might have thoughts yourself.

So once you’ve leaned away from the idea of reading a collection in one go – to avoid the risk of diminishing marginal returns – then the need to read them in order seems somehow weaker. So that’s what I do. I take a collection down from the shelf, a new one or an old one, and I scan the contents page; I consider the titles; I look at the page-length. I make my choice.

Reading a book is all about giving your time to the writer, putting yourself in their power. Choosing to read a collection out of order is a way of taking back a small amount of that power, or control, or cocking a snook, in a minor way. You wouldn’t do it with a novel (unless you’re reading Hopscotch) but with a collection: what harm can it do? 

Certainly I’d probably start with the opening story, or at least give it a chance to do its work on me. The opening story of a collection, no less than a title story – a story that the writer has chosen to stand for the collection as a whole – is a way of a writer setting out their stall. This is, broadly speaking, what I’m about in these stories. It makes sense to take them up on their offer. 

But I’d be as likely to lump for one in the middle, with an intriguing title, or that seems the right length for the moment. The last story? Unlikely. Presumably the writer put a story last that think ended the collection well, so it’s worth bearing that in mind too. Every story has an ending, but stories can have many different kinds of endings, and the kind of ending they choose to end the whole collection is, like the ending of a novel, something particular, and potentially precious.

Not reading the stories in order doesn’t mean ignoring the order they come in. Even if you read a final story first, or penultimately, it makes a difference that you know it’s the last story in the book. 

As an example, Chris Power’s debut collection Mothers is scaffolded by three linked stories, the first one, one in the middle and one at the end. You don’t have to read them in order, but once you’ve read them, you see how they gain power from their placing.

Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies I think does need to be read in order.

Broadly speaking, the stories in it are about motherhood, and womanhood. Babies – unborn, lost, marvellously, exhaustingly there – haunt the book. Often the main characters are mothers, but in ‘Jars of Clay’ the narrator is a young American Christian woman come to Ireland ahead of the Repeal the 8th referendum to campaign for the no vote. The stories are all contemporary, with some memories floating in here and there, and the sense of the recent past of Ireland and Northern Ireland is ever-present.

Now, when I picked up Lucy’s collection to read it, I read the first three stories in order. But then I saw a tweet by Louise Kennedy saying “All these stories are perfect but ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ has slayed me altogether.” So I read ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’, which is the third from last story in the collection, next. And Louise is right, it’s stunningly good. It’s about a young woman (wife and mother) on a transatlantic flight with her young daughter striking up a friendship with the man in the next seat, who is tolerant of the child, and then helpful, and then finally, in disembarking, very helpful indeed, when the woman’s husband is unable to meet her the airport, and she is tempted with the idea that this man might in some way be her future. 

It’s a beautiful story about connection, and forgiveness, and compassion. And I could have read on, but I’m glad I didn’t, but rather went back and read some of the other stories, not all of them in order. I’m glad, because the collection builds to something rather remarkable at the end. ‘All the People Were Bad and Mean’ is the last story that seems to function primarily as fiction. 

What follows seems (to me) something else. Not something else entirely, but something unexpected. You want the last story in a collection to be a highlight, a summit, a knock-out. (I thought of ‘Evie’ in Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, and ‘Vuotjärvi’ in her The Beautiful Indifference, both them leave you reeling, both of them are, in different ways, like punches to the face.)

The last two stories in Intimacies don’t do this. They don’t deliver dramatic pyrotechnics. They seem to slip the clutch, to freewheel, and, as the bikes in E.T., to kind of lift. What they seem to lift into is (again, to me) something like auto-fiction. They don’t seem to want to convince by virtue of narrative, or even, really, character, but by an impression of lived experience. They don’t declaim. They devolve to thought, memory, very little in the way of exteriority. Into reflection. Into direct address, but to persons not explicitly defined.

The penultimate story, ‘Devotions’, is about…

Well, it’s not ‘about’ anything. It describes a family driving home from a wider family get-together. The farewell. The long car journey. The arrival. The baby asleep on the shoulder. The bed. And then it’s, briefly, about other children. Nothing happens. Put it anywhere else in the collection and would crumble to nothing.

The last story, named ‘Intimacies’, is split into seven numbered sections – numbered with lower case latin numerals, to emphasise the delicacy of it, of them, the lack of clamour. They are about… well, they are about family life, and love, and compassion and care. Some of them are almost prose poems. One is almost a poem. Some of them are almost essays. They seem to me to be something very close to ‘autofiction’. 

I don’t mean by this that I think they’re necessarily autobiographical. I can’t know that. But they carry the tenor of autobiographical writing, partly in the way the texts bring in elements from our shared life, as an essay would (the Mesolithic footprints found recently in the Severn estuary, of a woman walking with three or four children), and critical references (DW Winnicott, Kate Chopin, François Gilot). 

It feels like autofiction because the writing opens up a space in what Wayne C. Booth called the “implied author”. The narrators don’t seem like the narrators of stories. They are not there to convince us of the reality of story-world. The way they address us (though they’re not actually addressing us, they’re addressing a ‘you’ that, magically, we are included in), the way they intimate these things to us, does away with the need for verisimilitude. What is being done here is not something being told, let alone being narrated, it is something being shared. The reader is taken into the implied author’s confidence. It’s quite a startling manoeuvre, as if one of Deborah Levy’s novels suddenly switches into one of her non-fiction books. (But it’s gentler than that.) 

I’m sure other people have done similar things. Karl O Knausgaard does something a little bit similar at the end of his amazing novel A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven. Certainly, it’s unexpected (or it was for me; I’ve spoiled it for you). Certainly it’s special. We have ended up somewhere very different from where we started. I love it.


CONTINUATION:

I couldn’t resist adding briefly to this post based on some reading over the past few months.

First up, I got hold of a copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, as I felt I had to, and read it on a summer’s afternoon in the garden. It’s a perfect exemplum and exemplar of the ‘linked stories’ collection: all told (one assumes) by the same narrator, dubbed Fuckhead by his friends. They’re not linked in any significant narrative sense. There is no through-line. Chronological solidity is not Fuckhead’s greatest feature. He jumps around in time in any case within stories, and the stories narrate incidental rather than grand events. A wife and various girlfriends are mentioned in passing, in the past, and mostly never named. He picks up a story in the eighth story he’d dropped in the second.

The interesting thing about the stories – and it’s borne out in the great final line – is how much they are about community, no matter that no one behaves particularly well to anyone else. And the sense of a revolving cast of characters who are all more or less interchangeable is what makes the collection hang together, as much as Fuckhead’s narrative voice: his mix of affectless reportage and sudden bursts of yearning:

A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision i will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?

Could you rearrange the stories in the book and leave it unchanged? A few of them, perhaps. Not out of narrative need, but from mood, tone and moral trajectory. Most of the stories are about addiction and the injection of lunacy into normal life that comes from excess alcohol, hallucinogens and narcotics. In the penultimate story he’s in rehab. In the last story he’s working in a halfway house, helping others. That sense of hope seems important.

Would the book be better for calling it a novel? I don’t think so. None of the stories are dependent on each other for their strength. They work better in this constellation, but the best of them are powerful enough to exist on their own, they create their own oxygen.

Then I also read Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals, which I didn’t realise when I started contained a set of linked stories. Six of the 11 stories concern a trio of characters, Lionel, Charles and Sophie, who form a brief, unstable threesome, Lionel being gay, Sophie straight and Charles bi, embarking on a brief fling with Lionel while still being in a relationship with Sophie, though Sophie is as interested in Lionel as Charles.

The ‘L-C-S’ stories start and end the collection, and alternate through it with unrelated stories. When I was four or five stories in, I wondered if Taylor might have been better to present the linked stories as a novella, but by the end I had decided he was right not to. In part this is because the novella might have looked like a ‘failed novel’, a novel he hadn’t had the energy to expand to its fullest possible extent – might indeed have looked like a retread of Real Life, for in fact Lionel shares a certain sensibility with that book’s Wallace.

But splitting them up makes sense. For one, the stories come from different narratorial perspectives. We start with Lionel, but see him from others’ views, close and at a distance, and the complexity of the trio’s ambivalent interrelations is best served by this. And also slipping from these stories to other ones does give you some of the reading experience of the longer novel, that lets characters dwell with you, that creates not just its own weather, but its own seasons. The other stories don’t link to them, but they offer interesting counterpoints. There is more vulgarity, more extremity, more violence and blood than in them, which adds a kind of hinterland or texture to a story that doesn’t get much beyond some uncomfortable sex and an ageing dancer’s joint problems for physical analogues to its emotional turbulence.

So, if Jesus’ Son operates (I think) rather as Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, then Filthy Animals operates like an expanded form of Chris Power’s Mothers, though even that is different, because its three joined ‘Eva’ stories do spread themselves – brilliantly – through time.

I watched a great online discussion between Chris and Brandon hosted by Daunt Books that you can watch here, and enjoyed what Taylor said about writing stories in constellations, i.e. not as standalones, but belonging together.

It’s a great conversation, do watch it – but I’ll put a few final thoughts below.

So Taylor talked about Mavis Gallant as an inspiration for his writing, and especially her story cycles, of which he mentioned (I think) the five ‘Linnett Muir’ stories. Now, I immediately ordered a copy of the Gallant Selected Stories (Selected! It’s nearly 900 pages!), and I’ll start in them shortly, but I read Gallant’s preface, which she ends with this marvellous thought, which pretty much takes me back to the start of my post:

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another. As if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

One comment

  1. aramblingcollective

    I guess unless it is a novella in flash, then it doesn’t matter if you read all of the stories in order. I generally find that the first story is their strongest or award-winning one. Sometimes the stories blur into one if I read the whole book in one sitting.

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