The Year in Stuff We Liked: Patchwork Novels

This week, in lieu of a BEST OF 2011 series, we’re running five stories focused on Stuff We Liked in 2011.

I like small things that fit with other small things to make big things. Small things by themselves are, quite honestly, kind of irritating. For example, I’ve always really appreciated flash fiction as a concept, but not always in practice, as some writers—and I’m speaking rather generally, here—think that since flash fiction is about the distillation of a story and all its elements—rather than reduction—that their final product should be so emotionally charged, so saddening or stupefying that the reader must be moved, this mistake often resulting in a hammy story that has one or two dead toddlers and three or four White Nuclear families ruined. I really do believe that, when you get right down to it (is that a Midwestern colloquialism? I love that phrase), it’s often more difficult to write an effecting or arresting short piece than a longer one with the same elements and characters and conflicts.

But when you remove these short-short pieces from isolation, when you group them with other short-short or long-short or short-long pieces that involve the same characters and places and concepts, the sum can be, pardon the cliche, greater than its parts. And for rather obvious reasons: vignettes with their own story arcs—or even just cogent beginnings and ends—are bound to resonate more with the reader. There are no chapters that merely move the plot along or fill space; everything has its place on merit. 

So it’s really quite heartening that two of the best books of 2011 were written in this style. Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love told the Popper family’s—and to some extent, Chicago’s—history by way of short, often humorous, always tender chapters. Orner’s deployment of brief, measured language worked well with the book’s structure. Here’s what we said about Love and Shame and Love back in November.

Instead, Orner focuses on Alexander’s lineage in gripping, brief episodes, as short as a few sentences and as long as five, maybe six pages. His language is similarly measured—but he hits all the right notes. His deployment of information about the Poppers allows him to be so economical with his language. He tracks where the Poppers lived, from houses in the city to the Jewish suburb of Highland Park. He notes where they went out to dinner and with whom they conversed; when Seymour and Bernice saw Sammy Davis Jr. and when Miriam hosted Walter Mondale.

Justin Torres’ debut novel We the Animals was a much shorter, less expansive book than Love and Shame and Love. Still, the emotion was overflowing. We the Animals focuses on three brothers in a mixed-race family, their poverty-stricken upbringing, and their efforts to band together in the face of neighborhood ridicule and their parents’ always tumultuous marriage. Here’s what we said about We the Animals in October.

Torres walks a fine line: We the Animals presents a striking view of American poverty, of a mixed-race household in a predominately white area, without getting blotto on those issues. Scenes of poverty—sharing inadequate portions for dinner, trying on secondhand military fatigues, and wandering around the neighborhood with no direction or money—were affecting, but not overdone; sobering but sober, if you will.

Such a shrewd approach allows for Torres’ master storytelling to shine. In the individual, flash fiction-ish chapters and in the broader narrative, Torres gradually builds tension, some-but-not-all of which is released at times: a sexual assault, a neighborhood boy showing the brothers hardcore pornography, Paps leaving, Paps returning, family fights, etc.

What this approach does that is so refreshing is leave so much to the reader; there’s so much emotion lingering, so much to infer about these characters and their thoughts and their circumstances—and that’s rather risky. It takes a clever writer to do this, to write something with so many loose ends and chronological jumps, to write something that’s a bit of a mess, but isn’t sloppy. Orner and Torres wrote the standard in 2011.

Tomorrow, Marnie Shure will take a look at another welcome theme of 2011: debut novelists. 

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One thought on “The Year in Stuff We Liked: Patchwork Novels

  1. Cassie says:

    I completely agree about Torres’ novel. It definitely doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. And I kind of like that.

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