The short story, the ever neglected cousin of the novel, requires many of the same techniques used in the composition of novel; however, instead of relying on capturing an entire Shakespearean arch of rise-fall-rise or an archetypal Hero’s Journey, the short story can exist as a fragment of any life or story. Many don’t even use a particularly poignant moment in a character’s life, often relying on the symbolic rituals of mundanity to inform the reader of the characters motivations and personality. How, in these snapshots of a larger story, can a complete character be formed? More accurately, how have the masters of the form done it? In this brief piece, I am going to explore my favorite short story writers; Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, and J.G. Ballard.
Raymond Carver, one of the most well known American short story writers, was a master of capturing moments where slightly drunken men and women stumble onto a piece of sober truth. His characters, usually blue collar workers, all share a certain stoic wit. The opening line of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the titular story in the collection with the same name, is an excellent example of Carver’s minimal characterization.
“My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.”
In those short two sentences, the reader is given a characteristic of the cardiologist, the narrator’s opinion of the cardiologist, and a brief view of the narrator’s sense of humor. It’s a marvelous economy of style. His physical descriptions of characters are slimmed down as well, keeping only characteristics that allow for a development of personality rather than just mental imagery.For instance, in the aforementioned story, there is no real descriptions of the narrator’s wife except her hands, “perfectly manicured”, imparting a certain cleanliness that matches her short and neat questions to Mel McGinnis. Carver relies on his narrators to explain the story and it’s characters, eschewing the sterility of an omniscient narrator for the more personal 1st person, a stylistic choice that matches his stripped down prose. The story itself involves only the characters sitting around a table drinking, as do many of his stories, but their descriptions and dialogue are colored so meticulously by Carver that it builds the characters into whole beings.
Raymond Carver is sometimes referred to as the master of ‘dirty realism’, both for his minimalism and his subject matter. One of the benefits of such careful editing (in no small part to his editor, Gordon Lish) is that his characters can be immediately built through perfectly placed literary tools like repetition, which in other prose may not be enough to stand on it’s own. For example, the narrator of So Much Water So Close to Home, a wife whose husband discovers a body on a fishing trip and doesn’t immediately report it to the police, portrays her relationship with her husband in in the second paragraph;
“What are you staring at me for?” he asks. “What is it?” he says and puts his fork down.
“Was I staring?” I say and shake my head stupidly, stupidly.
From these two lines the reader immediately understands the man’s hostility and the woman’s sense of inferiority in comparison. The figures exist a contrario, and continue to grow apart as the story progresses and their marriage crumbles.
Compared to Carver, John Cheever seems almost maximalist. He writes most often in a 3rd person inflected by the witticisms and hopes of his protagonists, and is unafraid to delve into complete pre-existing relationships. Each character introduced will have everything from hopes to pathological fears extricated and explained. Examine here the first real introduction of Agnes in Cheever’s story The Common Day.
“Mrs. Garrison was indifferent to children, and with Mrs. Bronson in Reno, Agnes had no rivals, but she was in continual torment lest something happen to Carlotta. She would not let her wear a scarf around her neck for fear it would catch on a nail or in some door and strangle the child. Every steep staircase, every deep body of water, the distant barking of every watchdog frightened Agnes. She dreamed at night that the house caught fire and, unable to save Carlotta, she threw herself into the flames.”
Cheever was completely unafraid to draw out the psyches of the various characters in his pieces, explicitly describing their actions and intense feelings. He would even delve into the metaphorical reasons behind their actions like in the following sentence:
“To touch Carlotta, to lay her cheek against the child’s warm hair, overpowered her with a sense of recaptured youth.”
This sort of extravagant characterization, rich in its intimacy (and more similar to Proust than Chekhov in my opinion), fits his Upper Middle Class characters perfectly, their anxious mental and emotional lives paired against their suburban settings. In many ways, the detailed prose of Cheever is symbolic of one of his recurring themes; that of the decay of the old and better cultural rituals rituals of the 19th century. He writes a perfect blend of the minimalist prose that was popular and the purple prose of the previous century. His most famous story, The Swimmer, displays this excellently.
“The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.”
Cheever is unafraid to build his characters into archetypal figures, or to imbue them with referential character.