08.04.10

In Praise of Short

Why is the novella such an intriguing and attractive fictional form? Taylor Antrim explores why these short works might be perfect for our time and suggests a few recent ones that do things the novel can only dream about.

It's fashionable to lament the status of the novella: unjustly neglected, the ugly duckling of the literary world, etc. Actually the novella seems in pretty healthy shape to me. It got a major dose of attention in 2005 when Melville House, a small press founded in Hoboken, New Jersey (now housed in stylish headquarters in Brooklyn's DUMBO), launched the Art of the Novella series—gorgeously designed pocket-size editions of classics from Melville ( Bartleby the Scrivener), Tolstoy ( The Death of Ivan Ilych), and works from contemporary writers like Tao Lin ( Shoplifting at American Apparel) and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész ( The Union Jack). Not to be outdone, New Directions introduced its small-format $10 Pearls editions last February, with graphic minimalist covers and novellas from international heavyweights Yukio Mishima, Cesar Aira, and others.

The novella has ambivalence built into its DNA. It’s neither one thing nor the other and tends to make you think even as it lures you down blind alleys and serves up irresolute endings.

But it's not just a pair of small presses championing an underdog form. Even the major houses have proved themselves surprisingly novella-friendly (though they seem to prefer the more approachable term “short novel”). Scribner gave us Don DeLillo's wispy thin Point Omega in February and Ann Beattie's Walks With Men (July) is the most sneakily intelligent read of the summer. No, novellas don't score blockbuster sales—even Stephenie Meyer's new Eclipse novella The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner from Little, Brown put up disappointing numbers in its first week—but they're around, people are writing them (see also Ian McEwan, Rick Moody, Nicholson Baker, newcomer Josh Weil, and others), and they're a reminder in a digital age that a printed book need not be a cumbersome relic. I can slip Walks With Men into my back pocket on the way to the park. A Kindle? Not so much.

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Walks with Men. By Ann Beattie. 102 pages. Scribner. $10. ()

But what is a novella anyway? Page count provides the only broadly responsible definition: roughly 60 to 120 pages of prose fiction, or as Melville House succinctly puts it: “Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story….” More often than not, though, the novella can be called something else too: fiction's most open-ended and compellingly discursive form. As in a short story, plot isn't paramount, but, without the story's demanding confines, there's room to wander. That means novellas are often structurally syncopated (think of the masterly changes of tempo in Joyce's The Dead), and their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative: Read any two pages of Lin's Shoplifting at American Apparel and you'd likely set it aside; read the whole thing and its strange sadness will overtake you. The novella has ambivalence built into its DNA. It's neither one thing nor the other and tends to make you think even as it lures you down blind alleys and serves up irresolute endings.

If that sounds like hard work—well, sure, sometimes a novella's pleasures have to be earned. That's certainly true of Jean-Christophe Valtat's 03, a novella consisting of the arresting and round-about musings of a rebellious suburban teenager by one of France's rising literary stars. Published there in 2005 and discovered in a Paris book shop by FSG editor Lorin Stein (who commissioned an English translation, appearing in paperback this month), 03 is a single paragraph that runs for 85 pages, a young man's simultaneously punkish and Proustian meditations on his attraction toward a mentally disabled girl at a bus stop. I had to read 03 twice to follow what was going on, but in the end Valtat's novella radiated an unexpected tenderness that has lingered with me. It's the most original and evocative portrait of the adolescent mind I've read in years.

The opening pages feel dangerously mean-spirited: “suddenly I understood… she was slightly retarded,” the narrator reports of the 14-year-old girl he's infatuated with, “her black hair spiking up on her little head as though she were enduring some slow, endless horror…” As he imagines “the filthy urges of abusive teachers or the fumbling and hasty advances of other disabled children” toward the girl, I braced myself for some coming nastiness. But this is a love story of a kind, and Valtat's narrator is setting the stage for a finely balanced expression of empathy.

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03: A Novel. By Jean-Christophe Valtat. 96 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $12. ()

In fact, he's chosen the rebarbative term “retard” on purpose, a word which for him has “a kind of accidental poetry… this quality of latency or absence, like a clock left behind in an empty room, a page someone forgot to rip out of a calendar, the walking embodiment of jet lag. That was how I felt about myself….” It's a theme he returns to again and again: He feels disabled by his own alienation from his middle-class suburban community. He'd rather listen to beloved mope-rock bands, The Smiths, The Cure, and Joy Division (from whom he quotes lyrics at length) than go to school or, God forbid, talk to anyone. He's buried in his own head, while this girl's disability, he imagines, has liberated her: “She seemed really to face the world, and her gaze came to me as if by catapult.”

So he tries to see through her eyes. The dreary advertising posters and billboards around town would be transformed into “a motley collection of curves and straight lines separated from one another by wide-open spaces, as though stuck, frozen, suddenly interrupted in the middle of tracing out some sort of revelation.” Her disability is not only a form of emancipation, he thinks, it has loaned her an artistic sensitivity as well. In the lushly connotative language of 03, it's hard not to be convinced: “She came to represent heedlessness itself… She was the living effigy of everything we will never be… she was my vanishing, wasted talent… this little girl, this girl of wire…”

I could go on quoting 03; it's full of long, tumbling sentences that convey the young man's longing, his rebelliousness, his sturdy hope. Few novellas are for everyone, 03 no exception, but I found it an unexpectedly revelatory work—and fresh reason to celebrate fiction's most eccentric form.

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Taylor Antrim is fiction critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.