As I've said, I'm not here to review books. But Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman is truly a delightful collection of stories. I recommend this book more than any other such collection I've read in ages.---
Last week, when I suggested picking up a collection of short stories, there was more behind my encouragement than the hope of getting pages into your hands that you could read in manageable chunks of time, although that benefit was indeed a major motive. No, what I really wanted (apart from just getting you people to read, dammit!) was for you to discover something simple and incredible about short writings that novels, no matter how wonderful they are, just cannot have.
Short writings, and short stories in particular, are able to capture some essence of humanity. Not in a Sistine Chapel sort of way. More like fireflies in an old mason jar.
Even when the stories encompass the bizarre, the almost other-worldly, they can feel like part of our world - or, at least, like they could be part of it. We might be able to relate to the characters or the situations in a larger piece, but come on, most of us don't lead the sort of lives that are Pulitzer Prize-winning-novel material. It's not that our lives aren't interesting (read: completely messed up, with some chance at resolution or redemption, if we're lucky); it's that our lives aren't, to borrow Gaiman's term, "story-shaped." Neither are our night-dreams. (Although our day-dreams always seem to go that way, don't they?)
But in a short story, the story-shape isn't as big, as unwieldy, as unrealistic as in a novel. Whenever we tell other folks about our day, about missing the bus* or what Finkelman did in the lunch room, or about that crazy time last summer (it's always last summer, isn't it?), we are putting our lives in short story shape. And when we fail, our recollections seem somehow flat, and people wonder why we even bothered to tell the story at all.
In a way, I think the short story might be the most human way to express ourselves. (And the short story need not be fiction at all. Relating to what I said in the last post, I think even a good recipe tells a story. As do poems, good journalism, travel writings, yadda yadda.) And when we read a good short story, we feel alive. We can say to the page in front of us, when we finish reading it, "Hey, now I've got a story for you." And the wonder of it is, I think we really do have such stories.
*Which I did. This entry was originally written and posted in the precisely twenty minutes I had in my apartment on the morning of January 22, between missing one bus and being sure to catch the next. Whoops. I later amended it to, you know, sound better, so this is no longer the rushed original version.