Something about the short story collection
I was chatting to another parent outside my son’s pre-school, recently, while we waited for our kids to come out. I was alone, she had another child, a girl of about 7 or 8, twisting and twirling at the end of her hand.
The mother, it turned out, had read my novel in her book group and wanted to know what else I’d written. I muttered something about my couple of collections, experience having taught me that telling someone who knows you’re a novelist that you also have story collections is at best underwhelming and a worst strikes them as irrelevant, a little like asking Lebron James what other games he loves, and having him reply, Canasta.
I was starting to talk, a bit more brightly, about my novel-in-progress, when the little girl piped up, “What do you collect?” She hadn’t been paying attention before, but she’d intuited awkwardness from the way I’d lowered my voice to talk about my collections and – like an animal scenting weakness – pricked up her ears. “What are your two collections?” she asked again, this time with a touch of challenge in her voice, and I was about to say, lamely “stories” (if only to clear myself of the even more mortifying possibility that I wrote poetry!), when her mother broke in and told her “Oh dear, they’re not that kind of collection.”
“I collect beanies,” the girl told me, firmly, “and Hummels and erasers and ponies. I’ve got all kinds, from all over.” I wasn’t sure if she meant the beanies, or the ponies, but her pride, her foursquare satisfaction of possession, left me with little doubt that she considered non-collectors with a touch a pity, and would likely find the idea of a collection of stories I’d written myself not only dull, but akin to cheating.
“It’s the age of collecting,” her mother advised me, as the kids emerged form the school. “Yours will be at it soon enough.”
They’re not that kind of collection. I trade in such parental evasions all the time, and the mother was clearly just trying to shield me politely from her daughter’s badgering. And yet the phrase stuck in my craw, a little, along with my own inability to answer her daughter’s question. (No writer after all likes someone else to speak for them). In truth though, I largely agreed with the mother – my collections aren’t that kind of collections. But, of course, what really nagged me is the question, what kinds of collections are they then?
I have been talking to my students for a few years about different types of story collections, based on my own experiences with the form. My first book, The Ugliest House in the World, for instance, was assembled under the not very edifying organizing principle of “all the good stuff I happen to have right now.” I don’t mean to entirely dismiss this kind of collection. I believe that one of the strengths of collections (and one of the pleasures of writing stories generally) is that they can be very diverse. Story by story a writer can change subject, tone, style, point of view, you name it, with much more freedom than say a novelist. In my own case, I should confess that this aesthetic arises from pragmatism. I’ve tended to consciously write very different stories as a means of escaping the hang-over from earlier stories – the way the first draft of a new story always seems so dreadful compared to the final draft of a previous story. It’s an unfair comparison, of course, but an inevitable one, and my means of tricking myself past this particular writer’s block has been to make sure that the next story is as far as possible incommensurable with the last – if one was light, the next will be dark, if one was contemporary, the next will be historical, if one was in first person, the next will be in third, etc, etc.
Collections of such varied work, of course, risk the dreaded verdict of being “uneven” (a friend of mine argues that there are actually only two reviews of short story collections, “promising mixed bag” for a first collection, and plain old “mixed-bag” for a later one), but I’m inclined to admire those varied collections in which we inevitably love some stories and hate others as works in which the writer has maximized the potential range of the form.
Such radical variety may also serve to distinguish the collection from the novel in another way. I was reading a review a few years ago in which a particularly famous contemporary novel was being described as essentially the best thing since sliced bread – the critical consensus on this book, in fact. According to the reviewer, it was terrific in this way, wonderful in that way, “but, of course,” the reviewer noted, almost in passing, “it falls apart at the end.” Think about that for a moment. This reviewer, I’m certain, was sincerely of the opinion that the novel was wonderful, and yet also recognized it fell apart at the end. The comment stayed with me, probably, because it resonated with the way I felt about several contemporary novels (I’m not going to name names) – really fine works that none the less disappointed in their endings. But perhaps that’s not too surprising. Novels, in the most basic sense, whether we’re talking about Jane Austen or John Grisham are machines to make us keep reading. If we love a novel, again irrespective of genre, we’re apt to say things like “I couldn’t put it down,” “I stayed up all night to finish it,” “I couldn’t stop turning the pages.” The most fundamental novelistic skill, one might argue, is the ability to keep us reading, which perhaps explains why novelists – even gifted ones – aren’t great at endings, at stopping us reading. But now consider that idea, “it’s a great novel, but it falls apart at the end” and imagine, for a moment, saying it about a story. I don’t think you can, right? If a story falls apart at the end, it’s not a great story, it’s not even a mediocre story, it’s just bad. Though, on the contrary, we might say of a story that the “ending makes it” (something said much less often about novels, because if only the ending makes it few readers may get that far to find out). A short story lives or dies by it’s ending. And if that ending is good enough, it should also be sufficient. It should suspend you, hold you, satisfy you to such an extent that you don’t want to turn the page, read another story immediately. Thus the discontinuities of varied, even haphazardly assembled collections like my own first book might actually be in concert with this idea of stories as, what Lorrie Moore has called, an “end-based form.”
For all that, though, it’s not hard to imagine an eight year old girl being unimpressed by such a collection. True, the constituents are all of the same kind – stories – and there’s an important notion that while related they should also be varied, but this interest in similarity and difference, and especially the differences within similarity and the similarity within difference is a basic tenet of any collection (we can assume that little girl collected different Beanie’s, for instance, and would find it odd, even creepy, if she collected identical ones). Such a collection as my first book is a little like presenting the first dozen or so stones that catch your eye on a beach and saying here’s my rock collection. The only choices such a collection offers, beyond the initial selection, is how it is presented, in the case of a story collection, how it is ordered. That can, as we’ll see be a very subtle question, but only when the individual elements have a complex relation to one another. In the case of my first collection my editor gave me some pointed advice: “Put the best story first, and the second best last. The critics may only read those.” She didn’t say, she was too polite to, but the corollary of such an argument is that you try to bury weaker stories somewhere in the middle of a collection, or at the very least try to disguise your weaknesses (an over-reliance on first person, say, or present tense, or death) by trying to space out the stories than lean on such devices and material. That’s a valuable defensive organization, to be sure, but hardly an aesthetically interesting one.
Of course, I’m doing my first collection a bit of a disservice here. There are other links between the stories – an interest in identity, most notably – which I’d only been semi-conscious of myself but that several readers and critics noted. This, of course, is one of the great pleasures of collecting one’s work, and one of my pleasures as a teacher in working with graduate students who are assembling theses. That act of collection is often a seminal moment in the development of such writers. They go from being people who write stories, to people who write books, and most importantly, in setting their stories side by side, in considering them collectively, they gain new insight into their work, new perspectives on it, frequently discovering things in the work that they were previously unconscious of. Some of these things, as noted above, can be weaknesses – an overuse or predilection for certain images, certain modes of story telling – but many others suggest recurring obsessions or interests that the writer himself is un- or only dimly aware of.
The assembling of a collection therefore seems like another step towards how we as writers read ourselves and our work, just as workshop, or giving a reading heightens and changes our relationship to our work because it allows us to stand back from it and apprehend it anew, often through the eyes or ears of readers. If the recurring weaknesses seem to narrow our work, these recurring strengths often deepen it, and can be built on. Old stories can be revised in light of one another – ‘stuck’ stories can often be cracked open in this fashion – and thrillingly new stories can be prompted by old ones, to fill gaps in a collection.
Personally, I was guided towards these potentials, a little more brutally than I hope my students are. As I mentioned above readers and reviewers are apt to make connections that the writer may only been partially aware of, or indeed not intend. Part of the reading act, I suspect, is to look for the logic in a collection, even when it may be capriciously composed. We’re hard-wired to look for pattern, and to call a body of work a collection is to invite such scrutiny.
This was brought home to me in particular by one British review of my first book – a fairly complimentary review I should to stress – headlined, ahem, “Linked by Flatulence.” (There is to be fair one story in which farting plays a major role and it’s mentioned in two others – though in one of those cases the fart in question is a fake one.) The worst of it was that the caption under my friendly author photo read “Peter Ho Davies, what’s he smiling about?” So… having learned the hard way that readers will find links even where they’re not intended I set out in my second collection, Equal Love, to shape, and define the links between my stories, to write essentially the second and more interesting kind of collection, a linked collection – in my case a thematically linked collection concerned with the various relations between parents and children. Such a collection immediately makes new demands, and the aesthetic of variation is given more purpose. In a gesture towards completeness I wanted to have stories about sons, but also daughters, stories about fathers but also mothers, stories about young children, but also adult children. Such links also necessarily suggest different ways of thinking about how stories are ordered – in the case of Equal Love, for instance, the child at the center of each story gets progressively older as the collection proceeds.
This second – linked – kind of collection is, of course, open to a vast range of interpretation, with the links capable of being articulated in multiple ways, of which Equal Love provides only one or two simple examples. It is possible, however, to discern some patterns, or trends in the construction of most linked story collections (typically strong collections will employ several of these linking strategies).
At the micro level we can make out small stitches of language between stories. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son provides a beautiful example. In the first story of that book, “Car Crash While Hitch-hiking” he offer a vivid description of a mid-western sky with “clouds like great grey brains,” an image so striking we easily recall it almost a hundred pages later in a story called “The Other Man” where another sky is described as “as blue and brainless as the love of God.” (Needless to say in a collection called Jesus’ Son recurring references to God, and especially to salvation also knit the collection together thematically). Other examples of these kind of echoes can occur in adjacent stories. At the start of Hemingway’s In Our Time, we find his famous story “Indian Camp” in which Nick Adams and his doctor-father travel to the Indian Camp of the title to tend to a pregnant woman, whose husband kills himself during her labor. The story is succeeded by “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” which starts with men from the Indian Camp reversing the journey of the earlier story by coming to the home of the doctor and his wife to cut logs. In Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City the second , widely anthologized story, “The First Day”, about a young girl’s first day at school, is followed by a story called “The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” which, while it ranges widely, opens with another older girl waiting at the gates of her high school. Such echoes of language and structure, of course, also imply comparisons and the possibility of contrasts. Joyce, for instance, ends successive stories in Dubliners, “A Little Cloud” and “Counterparts” with images of fatherhood. In the former, the protagonist Little Chandler after a frustrating encounter over drinks with a more successful friend finds himself at home, his wife out, with only his baby for company, and in the story’s climax he ends up screaming at the poor child to stop crying. He is interrupted by his wife’s return and the mother rocks the baby in her arms while “tears of remorse” start in Chandler’s eyes. In the following story we meet the even more stymied, Farrington, who like Little Chandler returns home from a night of drinking with friends to find his wife out, and promptly beats – remorselessly, in this case – his young son (now one of five kids) for letting the fire go out. These stories suggest parallels, mirrorings and even elements of pseudo narrative (a young girl grows into an older, albeit different one; a man’s family grows from one child to five). There’s a sense in which these echoing narratives of comparison and contrast offer alternatives to each other and not surprisingly several writers have interpreted these alternatives in metafictional terms. Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber offers two versions of the story of Little Red Riding Hood back to back in “Werewolves” and “The Company of Wolves”, both revisions of each other and, of course, of the original tale. And Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried (a hybrid of novel and collection, one might argue) offers multiple contradictory versions of several events.
Salinger takes this echoing quality and extends it across the span of a whole collection. Nine Stories opens famously with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” which offers as its most memorable scene an encounter between the suicidal Seymour Glass and a pert young girl, Sybil. This encounter is echoed in the middle of the collection in “For Esme with Love and Squalor” where the narrator, Sergeant X, encounters another precocious young lady, though in this case Esme seems eventually able to save the adult from his incipient breakdown. This sequence is brought to a telling close in the final story of the collection, “Teddy”, where yet another precocious child, a boy this time and professed genius, talks with another adult before calmly heading towards a death he has foreseen (a kind of suicide in its own right).
These links between pairs and small groups of stories begin to point the way towards over-arching patterns that link all the stories in a collection. Joyce, from whom I and countless others borrow the chronological device of progressively ageing central characters (Dubliners famously starts with stories about children, moves to those about adolescents and young adults and progresses towards maturity and death) also offers us the idea of the collection as a community, something we see clearly too in Winesburg, Ohio, where the separateness of stories, the discontinuity I’ve talked about earlier seems to suggest the limits of communication, the fundamental gaps between people, the very loneliness that, paradoxically, we all share. Community is explicitly addressed in several distinguished recent collections, too – Edward P. Jones’ aforementioned Lost in the City, another of those that owes a conscious debt to Dubliners, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Interestingly, in both of these, as in Dubliners, the community depicted is never unitary. Oh, our foreground attention is occupied by the citizens of Dublin, to be sure, but much of the talk is of the other – exotic distant lands like Araby, or the “Buenos Ayres” that Eveline is on the verge of journeying to, or the other closer to home – the London where Ignatius Gallaher, Little Chandler’s friend, has made a home, or the Paris he has visited, the Europe of race cars and drivers in “After the Race” and of opera singers in “The Dead.” Always behind these stories lies a tension between here and there, a tension made piquant by Joyce’s frequently negative view of the here. Dubliners in this sense contains both Dublin, and also by implication not-Dublin, England, Europe, to the east, and also in the final image of “The Dead” where snow is “general all over Ireland” the rest of the country to the west. We might locate this sense of here and there in Joyce’s own life, the life and biases of an exile looking back on a parochial home. Yet we can observe the same doubling of location in the work of Edward P. Jones, a committed Washingtonian who continues to live there. Jones’s characters are deeply aware of both a here – the African American neighborhoods of DC – and a there. A couple of “theres” actually – one that is the south from which so many of these families or their forebears came (a history Jones explores in later stories in the collection like “A Dark Night” and “Marie” and carries forward into the first story of his next collection “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” which goes back in time to introduce one of the secondary characters from the first story of Lost in the City as a baby). But Jones is also aware of another “there”, the “there” of white DC, rarely glimpsed but like the London and the English of Dubliners felt in their bones by his characters, some of whom are beginning to move into that territory, against the advice of the older generation, one of whom pointedly advises “Never get lost in white folks’ neighborhood” (just one of the many echoing references to getting lost that tie the collection together).
Lahiri’s first collection is similarly concerned with community, but also the fragmentation of community. Her East Coast Bengali-Americans are contrasted with Indians at home in Calcutta – in the title story most obviously where a vacationing family of Indian-Americans are given a tour of a temple by a local guide. In each of these collections then, characters are collected within a certain community, but each suggests a varied relation to, or place within that community. Most notably each of these communities – like the post-war Jewish-American one in Goodbye, Columbus – are in a state of flux. These changes, these moves – geographical, or socio-economic, or cultural – all imply a fragmenting of community, a whole that is also in parts, which seems especially well suited to the collection as a form, and perhaps suggests that the collection, (as much as the story, as many have suggested), is an especially American form, a reflection of the melting pot.
Some of the communities of collections, however, are formed less by geography and ethnicity than by shared events. It’s perhaps significant that several of the books I’ve already touched on are shaped by war – the first world war of In Our Time, the second underpinning Nine Stories, Vietnam in The Things They Carried. War makes communities – of comrades, of survivors – while simultaneously destroying or fragmenting them, and the experience of these wars is in itself fragmentary for their participants. Vietnam for O’Brien is episodic, senseless – very fit material for a collection. As for Hemingway’s war, it seems too vast to be more than glimpsed at, and the cumulative effect of In Our Time is an almost cubist portrait of the conflict (one that ends in “Big Two Hearted River” with Nick alone, going fishing, but first crossing the burnt out landscape of a forest fire which resonates with the shattered images of no-man’s land he’s left behind). As for Salinger, Nine Stories is more concerned with the fragmentary aftermath of war – the discontinuities of early death and especially suicide.
Several of the collections mentioned here are, of course, linked (and sometimes linked to other work by their authors) by recurring characters – Nick Adams, Seymour Glass, “Tim O’Brien” himself. But these individuals are typically part of a community – the Lost Generation, the Glass family, Alpha Company – in transition, or disillusion. In Edward Jones’ DC community and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg characters who appear as minor figures in one story, part of the background community, recur as major players in another, or vice versa. Joyce, interestingly, eschews such links, a surprising choice since the Dublin of his day is a small town compared to a modern city and we might expect in such a teeming volume characters to bump up against each other. And yet, if we look at “The Dead”, there’s a sense in which it gathers up at its great holiday feast not the individuals we’ve encountered in past stories, but their types, their spirits we might even say. The drunks, the serving girls, the literary men, the singers from the earlier stories all find their analogs around the table. Even the recurring individuals in these collections though are subject to fragmentation. It’s significant perhaps that Denis Johnson’s collection includes titles like “Two Men” and “The Other Man” and that mirrors play a recurring role in the stories (at one moment he writes of a mirror above a bar as “a knife dividing everything from itself” a terrific image which also happens to echo the most memorable image of the whole collection, a knife plunged into someone’s eye). Lorrie Moore for her part has a story called “How to be the other woman”, and her use of 2nd person in Self Help is interesting in that her “You’s” seem to simultaneously imply an effaced “I” – a double voiced quality we see in many retrospective narrations where both the child’s point of view and that of the adult looking back are suggested (Jones, for instance, deploys this strategy in “The First Day”).
There are many other kinds of linked collection I might add to this catalog. One sub-set would include Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics works which seem to rely on master narratives (folk-tale and scientific theories respectively) to shape them, as others, including the war-time collections mentioned above, lean on our shared history. There are other devices I might touch on too – the shaping power of titles (In Our Time, say, which so provocatively implies even as it excludes the first word of the prayer for “Peace in our time”), and even of epigraphs like Salinger’s famous use of the Zen koan, “what is the sound of one hand clapping,” at the start of Nine Stories which seems to invite, even demand, a certain approach to the book as a whole. And of course, there’s much that might be said of closing stories – the way they frequently approach age and death, after Dubliners, but also often reverse themselves and circle back to the start of the collection (youth and young love are evoked in “The Dead”, after all, just as the dying woman, the title character Marie, in the final story of Lost in the City recalls her earliest arrival in DC).
This summary of the kinds of story collection, though necessarily limited, hopefully suggest some commonalities. An interest in variation – alternatives, mirrorings, parallels – within ostensive similarity (of community, ethnicity, experience), and perhaps too a desire to hold together or put back together that which has already begun to come apart. But I’m left with the question I began with. If these are some of the recurring attributes of story collections, how do they compare to a more general sense of collecting that that little girl at the start might share.
My own childhood collections included key-rings, embroidered patches as well as those enthusiasms foisted upon most kids by well meaning adults – coins, and stamps. Collections seemed important then. I can even recall that little girl’s question – “What do you collect?” – said with just that edge of challenge from my childhood. Because surely what we collect is a measure of who we are, our passions – an often conscious declaration of self. I’m someone who collects X . It’s an individual image we project into the world and one we invite the world – friends, family etc – to corroborate by buying us more of whatever X is. Yet I always remember the question of what I collected, and the declaration that it required, making me uneasy as a child. Partly, there was an implicit threat – what if the other person collected what you collected, and worse had more of it than you did? I was never much good at the competitive collecting of trading cards, never had parents who’d buy me more than one pack of gum at a time (my mother was a dentist, after all), never completed my “teams” of players before the end of a season. Even the act of collecting made me anxious – the problem with key-rings and patches, for instance, is that they’re almost infinitely varied. As a child, I think it dawned on me quite early that I’d doomed myself to collect these things for the rest of my life and that it was a Sisyphean task – uncompletable. And yet, a collection once begun is hard to disassemble, to throw away or break up. Somewhere in an old biscuit tin in my parents’ attic those key-rings are still waiting for me, begging for completion. Finally, I think my deepest fear was that I wouldn’t have anything to say to the question, what do you collect? Deep down I suspected the real answer was nothing, but try telling that to an adult. It’s abnormal, somehow, suggestive of some deficiency. Human beings are hunter gatherers after all – activities that are both implied by collecting.
With the possible exception of stories, I don’t think I collect anything now. As we become older, I suppose, we’re defined less by our collections, than our choices – what we major in, our jobs, our partners (though I guess there are those who collect the latter). Of course, like any writer I have the obligatory collection of rejection slips – but that’s at best an ironic collection, one that in its very cliché perhaps is more about collecting ourselves up into the collection (or community) called writers. I also have a lot of pens – people do love to give writers pens (a gesture I find faintly nagging, somehow, as well as depressing in its lack of imagination). I even toyed with collecting antique fountain pens briefly after the gift of a couple – indeed I have writer friends who collect typewriters – but what was a lovely gift felt awkwardly precious as a choice of collection (though fountain pens and typewriters – those “ancient” tools of our trade – do suggest the recurrent nostalgia inherent in collecting). Of course, I do have a lot of things – a dismaying pile of possessions that has grown exponentially since I bought a house and stopped moving apartments every couple of years with the inevitable culls that entailed – and a lot of them are the same things, books most obviously. But I don’t quite think of my books as a collection per se – not any more at least – perhaps because the books at my home are a blended set of mine and my wife’s and thus don’t speak to our individuality, perhaps because over the years the books have just accumulated in a random fashion – those read for that class, those read, but not enjoyed, those given as gifts but never read, all diluting the essentialness of the collection. It’s a far cry from the days in my teens when I would be thrilled to discover some series of science fiction novels and look forward not only to reading them, but reading them all, and then lining their identical spines up on my bedroom shelf like trophies.
I confess, that the one thing I am pretty thorough about collecting is me – my works, collecting my collections – even down to dogging my agent to get me a copy of a recent Italian edition of one of my books, which will eventually find a home on what my wife likes to call “my vanity shelf.” But then as I said earlier we collect to define ourselves, our identities, and that seems as true of my vanity shelf, as of my own collections of stories, as of any collection.
Still, the self somehow seems a poor, unsatisfying note of commonality, especially when we’re talking about collecting which while it might represent the self, also seems at its best more capacious, more embracing of the rest of the world.
Perhaps we need to open our idea of collections up even further. If we take, for the sake of argument, as our first collector, Noah, what does his example suggest to us about what makes a good collection? Noah in fact seems to offer an ideal of collecting. His collection is complete (or at least we’re told so; I guess any creatures he left out aren’t around to complain – collections in this sense have the power of inclusion and exclusion, the excluded is rendered invisible). We might call it representationally complete, in fact. He doesn’t, can’t, save every animal, he just saves two of every kind. His then is a complete sample. What are the other hallmarks of Noah’s collection? It’s a benign act, of course, an act of preservation, of salvation, indeed. Lastly, and perforce in Noah’s case, but perhaps by choice for later collectors, Noah’s collection is very varied, very diverse. It’s not all of one thing, it’s a grouping of disparate things with one thing in common (they can’t swim).
Of course, there are other modes of collection, other choices. Noah might have decided to collect one animal, a whole herd of cattle, for instance. And we know of such collectors, we call them well…monopolists. We see in their hoarding, a motive of greed, a desire for power. If this kind of collection is about preservation it’s about self-preservation. This evil collection is most obviously manifest in the Nazi’s final solution, the desire to collect all Jews…in order to liquidate them. Perhaps this is why the diverse, representative, preserving collection is the one we aspire to.
There are echoes here, too, of our story collections. Surely, the act of recording these stories of fragmenting communities is an effort at saving something, preserving something. We collect in order to recollect, perhaps. But the stumbling block is that idea of completion, surely. Noah gets to complete his collection. I, as a child, gave up on collections that seemed uncompletable. And yet, I continue to write and indeed to write collections (though my editors when I signed a deal recently for another novel and a collection made it abundantly clear that they were taking on the latter as a favor to me, one bound to lose money.) But if completion is the ideal goal of collections, and we give up collections that can’t be completed, what do story collections aspire to? We don’t do it for the money as the sales figures suggest, so what is the satisfaction?
Well, I’m reminded here of a final example. “Its the age of collecting,” that young mother told me. But collecting, in my experience, has two ages – childhood and old age. My father on retirement, say, started to collect, very systematically, an early form of trading card called cigarette cards, that – as their name implies – were included with British cigarettes from the early 20th century into the 1970’s. He must have a couple of thousand sets – flags of the world, famous ships, inventors, boy scout badges, even famous authors – each card sealed in a little plastic window, snapped into a ring-binder. For ten years after retirement he combed flea markets, antique shops, estate sales, bidding low and always driving hard bargains often for boxes of unsorted cards. My mother in his wake felt the need to start her own collection – of salters, the little bowls of salt that used to be placed on a dining table with a tiny spoon before salt shakers became the norm. Her collection petered out within a year or two, overwhelmed by her competing interests, reading, knitting, travel. But more surprisingly his – which had been his thing, his passion – has also now in his 70’s all but ground to a halt. He’s got them all, essentially – or at least got all those that don’t cost hundreds of pounds per card (his parsimoniousness, his coin collection, is perhaps more defining of who he is than any collection). And while a part of me is relieved – he could become a real tyrant on trips, hunting down antique shops at the expense of dinner, and overbearing in his demands that you ooh and aah over his latest finds – a part of me is also dismayed. He chose this activity for his retirement, a nostalgic return to his youth, of course, and now… it’s finished. Something is “off” here. His collection is finished before him; the idea of completing a collection seems in this light filled with pathos. The completion of a collection speaks of passion spent, of death (remember how many collections end with death or at least its anticipation). Our last collection, if we’re so lucky, after all, will be our collected stories, or poems, and those collectors who collect us, our signed first edition, will only realize our worth after our deaths.
Contrary to Noah’s example then I’d argue that while we all aspire to completion, look forward to it, want to collect collections that could theoretically be completed, we don’t actually want to complete them (that would be an end to the fun after all). And story collections, I’d argue, do have this in common with other collections.
Each of the books I’ve talked about above balances the narrowing danger of repetition against the deepening possibilities of variation and echo. Perhaps most obviously each evinces a tension between cohesion and fragmentation, between the parts and the whole, an acknowledgement of the fragility or temporary nature of the whole which harkens back to the idea of collections as a means of preservation, or at least of recording, and provides a contrast to the novel with its focus on the “new”.
Collections in essence then speak to the very tenuous nature of completeness and thus thrive on comparison (consider my two titles, The Ugliest House in the World, Equal Love), on doublings, on reflection, on alternatives. Stories mirror each other, and parallel each other. The sense then is of completion implied, an imperfect or shadow completion, a completion through antithesis. Collections finally don’t, can’t, contain an entirety, and yet they invite us, the reader, to imagine it.
Which is perhaps where I should end this collection of thoughts about collections. A collection that started in childhood, approached death at its close, offered a range of alternatives in its midst, and which I hope has in its incompletion invited you to fill its gaps.
And that’s my kind of collection.
[Further Reading: Sigrid Nunez references this essay in her review of Nicole Krauss’ To Be a Man in The New York Review of Books (11/5/20)]