Last time, we began discussing Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible, focusing on how the nine stories are linked by theme and character. An important question about this book is whether it is a novel or a collection of short stories. I mentioned that one can read each story separately, although reading them all has a synergistic effect. Let’s examine this separate-ness issue more. Do the various stories have the characteristics of short stories, or do they behave more like the chapters in a novel? A novel, let’s remember, is a different beastie in that each chapter is a step in a sequence about transformation. To review, what are the characteristics of a short story?
A weighty issue, my friends. Some take the position that the essential characteristic of a short story is its length—typically between one thousand and ten thousand words. A novel is longer. Well, that seems kind of an easy way out.
Here’s a definition that covers length but also gets at self-contained-ness (is that a real word?), the quality of something being complete onto itself:
A short story is a piece of prose fiction that can typically be read in a single sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood.
Here are a couple of other views:
A story should be a story; a record of things happening full of incidents, swift movements, unexpected development, leading through suspense to a climax and a satisfying denouement.
Anton Chekov thought that a story should have neither a beginning nor an end. It should just be a "slice of life", presented suggestively. In his stories, Chekov does not round off the end but leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
‘Kay. The first definition emphasizes the need for a short story to have a climax and satisfying conclusion, the second presents the idea that a story should be open-ended and not conclusive.
I’ll have a go:
A good story shows a protagonist transforming. In a novel, the protagonist is shown at the beginning the way she/he is or was before transforming, usually because of some sort of dilemma. Then the story shows how particular experiences and interactions with others create a moment of crisis that leads to transformation. A novel accomplishes this process over its whole course; a short story must do so in a much shorter space.
So, if each chapter in Anything can be read as a short story, it should have these structures.
Let’s look at the first chapter, The Sign.
Two characters are introduced, Tommy Guptill, who is arguably the protagonist (the story begins and ends with him) and Pete Barton, Lucy’s brother (remember that Lucy is a thread through all the stories). Tommy begins in a sort of pleasant trance state in which he has rationalized tragedy (the long-ago destruction of his dairy farm business and family home) by a belief that, during the disaster, God spoke to him and assured him that everything would be all right. He has worked for years since as a janitor, a job where he encountered and tried to help Lucy Barton, whom he knew of because Lucy’s father had worked for him on the dairy farm. One of his current helping projects is Lucy’s brother, Pete, an isolated and limited man who is largely shunned by the community.
So here, the story has begun with a view of the protagonist—Tommy—as he is before the events of the story change him. He is resolutely positive and believes that bad things happen to people to make them appreciate what’s really important in life.
During the fire which destroyed his farm, “he had felt—undeniably—what he could think was only the presence of God…pressed up against him and conveying to him without words…some message that Tommy understood to be: it’s all right, Tommy.”
Tommy goes to visit Pete Barton and is surprised when Pete asks him to stop dropping by. “You do it to torture me,” Pete says. Tommy is mystified, and Pete explains that it was his father who deliberately set the fire that destroyed Tommy’s business and that Tommy knows this and visits Pete to remind him of what his father did. Tommy doesn’t want to believe that Barton Sr. set the fire and suggests Pete is mistaken.
Tommy tells Pete about his experience of God appearing to him the night of the fire, something Tommy has never told anyone before. Pete responds: “So you believe that.” He says this not in a challenging way but more out of sincere curiosity at encountering someone who is capable of such a belief.
Tommy affirms he does believe and tells Pete: “I guess there’s always that struggle between what to do and what not to do…to be able to show remorse—to be able to be sorry about what we’ve done that’s hurt other people—that keeps us human.”
Pete says in response that his father was remorseful about setting the fire.
Pete continues that he was wrong about Tommy wanting to torture him and that he’d like Tommy to come by again so they can have “talks.” Tommy agrees, although he’s aware he really doesn’t want to.
Tommy drives home and feels an increasing sense of fear. He doesn’t understand why he told Pete about his experience with God and is shocked that Pete questioned whether it really happened. Tommy feels an emptiness he hasn’t felt before, an absence of God.
He goes home and talks with his wife Shirley, telling her about his experience with God the night of the fire. “But now I think I must have imagined it…it couldn’t have happened. I made it up.”
His wife reassures him, saying it could have happened just as he believed.
“And then Tommy understood…his doubt—(his sudden belief that God had never come to him)—was a new secret replacing the first.”
‘Kay. Tommy transforms significantly over the course of the story. He goes from sureness to doubt because of his encounter with Pete Barton. At the end, there is no neat tying up of the doubt, no happy ending. We are left with a man whose coping mechanism have been shattered. Later in the book, we learn that Tommy, his wife, and Pete Barton have been working at the local soup kitchen since the events of The Sign, and we can speculate that Tommy derives peace from this charitable work. But at the conclusion of The Sign, we are left with a human in despair.
So, referring back to the definitions of a short story we began with, The Sign seems to have those characteristics, but is also embedded within a larger work. It has transformation of a protagonist, unexpected developments, and a crisis leading to an open ending. It is self-contained, in that you don’t need to read all of Anything to comprehend it.
Next time, let’s look at another of the stories, hunting for transformation.