Saturday, 29 August 2015

Narrative appetizers by Sheila Heti

Full title: The Middle Stories
Author: Sheila Heti
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 160 pages, paperback
Publisher: McSweeney's (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

You know you’re in for a feast of fiction when you open a book to titles such as “The Princess and the Plumber,” “Mermaid in a Jar,” “The Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” or “The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates.” Thirty such titles are lined up at the start line in Sheila Heti’s second edition of The Middle Stories. The volume, boasting nine additions to the cast of characters of the first take (2001), is a collection of minuets in prose with roots in the tradition of fairy tales and with branches in various offshoots of postmodernity.
By employing an identical tone and a unitary spatial and chronological progression, Heti managed to solve one of the most threatening aspects of short-story collections: unity. All her texts sound the same. I don’t mean this in a bad sense but on the contrary, as a tribute to the positive qualities of her prose.
There is a rhythm proper to fairy tales, in which sentences rise and fall so as to accommodate the reader/listener to the tempo of the telling. That rhythm, repetitive and ritualistic, has its proper utility: it is meant to reassure the reader/listener that they are in familiar territory, that what’s going to happen won’t do them any harm. That’s precisely what one finds in The Middle Stories too. Random example, the near-iambic scansion in the following opening paragraph, with special emphasis on the first sentence (“The Favorite Monkey”):
“They lay under the tree in the morning June air and breathed in each other’s whispers. That’s how romantic it was under the tree – under any tree! And nobody made them leave or come out of it or shake it off.”
This is what makes the stories familiar. This, as well as the easy embracing of the fantastic, in ways that keep no secret of their affiliation to fairy tales. At least these two elements make the collection a ride worth taking. And speaking of rides, I assume the brevity of the pieces collected in the volume is likely in tune with what we like to call ‘the modern life.’ Taken in isolation, these texts are tiny morsels of storytelling for the use of the hurried commuter, who has only this long to finish one text, and who needs to reach resolutions before reaching destinations. The Middle Stories delivers this sense of quick fixes lined up in a continuum of little episodes to be consumed like appetizers between this stop and the next. Mostly two to three pages in length, the stories manage narrative timing with a specialist’s exactitude. One wouldn’t find it hard to spot the austere style, the dialogues that don’t have much time to dwell on deep psychologies, the generous time lapses, the preference for outlines rather than full portraitures. All this is good and feels good when read, because it rings that familiar bell of fairy tales which, short and specific, take no prisoners in the battle for efficiency of expression.

Sheila Heti. Source: The Times-Picayune
Also from the fairy-tale molds emerges this noticeable tendency towards titles that grab (see above), followed by introductory sentences that pursue the lead announced by said titles. To illustrate, here’s the story called “The Giant,” and more specifically the way it starts:
“There was a giant in their town. His name was Sal. Everybody laughed as he walked by and said things like, ‘Hey, giant!’ and waved and grinned and elbowed their dates and stuff like that, which the giant tolerated only because he was a giant. It was part of his lot to be way bigger than everybody and teased mercilessly for being so.”
And so, following the above, there’s no doubt as to what the stories are about. The title makes it clear; the opening paragraph makes it clearer. Once again, a busy commuter must appreciate the slight of hand, although they have a wee bit of work to do for themselves before they can say the stories have been well comprehended.
Heti rarely describes characters through references to their physical features. When those are present, they’re often limited to very elusive hints. It’s often more important that “Eleanor was fond of ice cream” (“Eleanor”) or that “there was sweat under her arms” (“A Few Adventures of the Young Fornicator”) or that “Marcus was getting a headache” (“Janis and Marcus”). Or, when further narration is involved, it’s more important for things to go like this: “One boy was taller, and the three went slowly down the street, and it was cold” (“The Girl Who Planted Flowers”). Or like this: “A little old woman who never stopped smiling walked into the kitchen from her garden” (“The Raspberry Bush”). The pleasure the author takes in playing the good cards of brevity is noticeable throughout.
On another hand, connections between elements are often short-circuited in the manner just illustrated through the last two sample sentences. As a result, whatever stands in the place of description is puzzling, dazzling, nonplussing. But that’s exactly what gives the stories the flavor they have: this sense of rapid fires after rapid fires, this economy of means, this austerity.
Heti prefers to make her characters perform little sketches in front of their readers, because she wants to use narration as a means of description. Some stories are entirely conceived as such, although these portrayals are well disguised behind plot lines. How does one know, thought, that they’re only disguises? Because a lot of these stories don’t have conclusions. They make full use of the cliff-hanger trick to remain suspended in the reader’s mind and to create tiny tornadoes in their consciousness. They don’t distribute well-chewed closures, and when there is anything resembling moralitas at all, one can be sure that it is done in order to enforce sarcasm.
And so the general musicality of the thirty pieces in the collection is mostly jocular. In spite of the fact that many situations depicted in them are on the sad side of things (read again the opening to “The Giant”), the telling doesn’t feel depressed. This rhythmic parade lifts the texts to that innocent skipping-rope realism that characterizes fairy tales, in which even the most outrageous fantasy is understood to be real. Because that’s what the story dictates.