Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Life in Short

If you've been reading Leafing Through Life for anything length of time, you may know something of my love/hate relationship with short stories made worse by the fact that rather than actually liking them, I have more of a propensity to just believe that I like them because other people seem to like them quite a lot. For the appallingly slow reader in me, short stories should be a nice break in the inaction, something I can swallow whole in an hour instead of nibbling at over the course of days, weeks, or, dare I say, months. Oftentimes they're even written by the same authors whose lengthy novels I crave. All the same, more often than not I find that they're either completely impenetrable to my lazy mind which doesn't want to dig deep to discover the (possible) meaning of something that's only a few pages long or like I've turned up at a five course dinner only to be given a salad with no dressing. Given this, I haven't been reading many lately, and the few I have, have been woefully disappointing featuring irritating or confusing characters and never reaching any satisfying conclusion or eliciting any sort of response in me whatsoever.

Then...then, I tell you, I read two of the shortest stories I've read in a long time, perhaps ever. So short, in fact, that it seemed less likely than ever that I would be able to glean any sort of meaning or enjoy any personal response to them at all. Thankfully, I was wrong, and just on the point of walking away from short fiction yet again, I find my faith restored in the potential power of saying something creatively in few words.

As usual, the two stories come from the gads of issues of the New Yorker that I keep lying around my house in the offhand chance I might want to make an attempt at enjoying a short story or desire to create the sort of educated, cultured facade that flipping through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly simply cannot provide.

The first one was "The TV" by Ben Loory from the April 12 (2010!) issue, the other "Here We Aren't, So Quickly" by Jonathan Safran Foer (whose books I own but have, as yet, failed to read) from the recent summer fiction issue. "The TV" is a surreal tale about a man who doesn't feel like going to work and stays home one day. He doesn't usually take the time to watch TV, but on this day, he sits down to seek out something to watch, and oddly, he finds a show about himself. Not a show that he can relate to or is similar to his life, but a show about him going about his daily life. Soon he is watching himself on TV frequently and what originally appears to be a show just about his daily grind suddenly begins to change until all sorts of versions of himself are doing all sorts of things on TV. I don't usually go in for anything too surreal, but I found "The TV" to be oddly compelling.

Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here We Aren't, So Quickly," a mere one and a half New Yorker pages long, is terribly difficult to summarize. There is no dialogue, there is no real action, and there hardly seems to be a plot of any sort, and yet it's powerful. They style is unique. The piece is rather a litany of seemingly unrelated observations, characteristics, and actions that make up the people and events that make up a life.

I would hesitate to go any further in describing either story, but I will say that both of these tiny stories are absolutely striking in their ability to creatively and uniquely distil the big things in life; hopes, regrets, love, hate, possibilities, disappointments, and everything in between; into just a few words. They are both stories which have meanings that are immediately apparent, but also leave you questioning whether they might mean something different on a second reading, or have some totally different meaning for another person, in different circumstances, reading the same story. Regardless, it seems that both stories have the potential to elicit an intensely personal reaction in its readers that doesn't seem possible in so short a piece.

And I like it.

If you like, you can read "The TV" here. Unfortunately, my favorite of the two can only be viewed by New Yorker subscribers, but if you are one, check out "Here We Aren't, So Quickly".


  1. I have a love-hate relationship with short stories as well. I only read them when they come very very highly recommended. So I'm off to read The TV now. ;)

  2. If you get a chance, check out "Sagittarius" by Greg Hrbek. One of the best short stories I've read in a long time. I cried my eyes out reading it. Wonderful!

  3. I am not a huge fan of short stories, but I trust your judgement and will give this one a try; thanks Megan

  4. What a pity the Jonathan Safran Foer story isn't freely available :( I really love his writing and I'm sure I'd enjoy it a lot.

  5. i enjoy short stories but i really have to be in the mood for them. i'm going to read both of those though! :-)