Books June 2014

Flash Fiction

How Stuart Dybek, a master of the short story, captures elusive memories and moments
Tim McDonagh

Eleven years have passed since I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek’s third story collection, but readers of McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, and Tin House—readers, for that matter, of the Indiana Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Literarian, Image, Monkey Business, The Nervous Breakdown, Jelly Bucket, and nearly every other literary journal published on the continent—know that Dybek has not been idle. The pressure has been building for more than a decade, and the dam has now broken with the simultaneous publication of two very different new collections, a virtuosic and occasionally addling torrent of short fiction by one of the form’s living masters. Technically these collections contain 59 short stories, but given the nature of Dybek’s style, that number seems a gross understatement.

Writers are like runners: each has an optimal distance. There are marathoners (Proust, Musil, Mailer, Pynchon, Vollmann); middle-distance runners, whose novels rarely stray far from the standard 300-page finish line (Highsmith, Weldon, Auster); and sprinters (Simenon, Salinger, Lydia Davis, Donald Antrim). But length isn’t everything. Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain were sprinters who wrote novels—novels that are thinly disguised story collections. Dickens wrote enormous novels that tend to be compendiums of middle-distance novels shuffled together. Alice Munro is a long-distance runner who squeezes novelistic narratives into short stories.

Stuart Dybek is a sprinter—if not the Usain Bolt of the short story, then at least the form’s Justin Gatlin. His best race is the two-pager. More than a third of the stories in Ecstatic Cahoots are that length or less, and only a handful are more than five pages. The shortest is the first story, “Misterioso,” which I quote in full:

“You’re going to leave your watch on?”
“You’re leaving on your cross?”

This exchange, or a permutation of it, appears, in different contexts, in several of the stories in Ecstatic Cahoots. It’s a gimmick, but a gimmick consistent with Dybek’s general approach, which is to string together distinct and apparently unrelated episodes under the heading of a single story, like a jeweler stringing a chain through different stones, some glittering and some dull, some exotic and some mundane, to create a necklace unlike any that has existed. Of the two new volumes, Paper Lantern is the more substantial and more satisfying, with nearly every story longer than the stories collected in Ecstatic Cahoots. The reading experience is similar, however, because Dybek rarely sustains a single narrative for very long. His longer stories resemble miniature short-story collections.

“Tosca,” “Blowing Shades,” and “Oceanic” are extreme examples of this approach. Each is made up of numerous episodes that have little obvious connection with one another. “Tosca” begins with a hooded man facing a firing squad. Unlike Ambrose Bierce in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or Borges in “The Secret Miracle,” Dybek does not take us inside the man’s head, but instead enters the thoughts of the soldiers as they imagine what the man is thinking. A corporal pictures a scene between the man and the man’s lover in a Chicago apartment, near the L tracks; soon we find ourselves in a stone cottage near Lucca, where the two lovers hear an accordionist playing a Puccini aria. Before we know it, we’re back at the execution, where it becomes clear that the scene is in fact occurring on a stage, during a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, and the soldiers are extras. Or is this just another fantasy?

Abruptly we are introduced to a first-person narrator, who tells the story of his relationship with a man who “was living his life like an opera.” From there, it’s a short hop to an account of the narrator’s affair with a woman named Iris, which leads to an anecdote about Clair, another lover, who was an ensemble member of a fledgling theater called Cahoots … and all but one of those episodes, any of which could serve as its own, self-contained story, are resolved before the halfway point of the 19-page story. Nearly a dozen additional micro-stories follow in turn before the hooded man is executed. It’s an impressive, if arid, feat of legerdemain: the transitions are seamless, so seamless that by the time you realize you’ve traveled from one episode to a second, you’re already in a third.

Writers are like runners: each has an optimal distance. Dybek is a sprinter.

In Ecstatic Cahoots, Dybek carries the blurring even further, as many of the stories seem, at least upon first glance, to be continuations of the previous story. “I Never Told This to Anyone,” to take one example, is a fantastical story about a miniature bride and groom who appear on the narrator’s windowsill at night. The following story, “Fridge,” begins, “At midnight the expedition of the bride and groom arrives at the Fridge.” But these are a different bride and groom … perhaps. This gesture toward continuity—like the reappearance in multiple stories of the same characters, phrases, and images (moonlight, mirrors, ice)—makes it difficult to determine whether Ecstatic Cahoots is actually one long story, or 50 short stories, or several hundred. Trying to track all the connections between the stories can be maddening; it is also, ultimately, pointless. There are enough overlapping symbols and motifs to establish that they have been placed intentionally, though not enough to establish any deeper meaning, apart from giving the reader a general sense of Dybek’s personal fascinations.

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