Monday, March 4, 2013

Reassessing the Short Form

We Live in Water
by Jess Walter

It wasn’t that long ago that any publisher would have told you that “story collections don’t sell.” These days, however, they’re all the rage. If asked, I would proclaim, “I’m not into short-form.” And yet, I’ve read three excellent collections within the past month. I am being forced to reassess my attitudes because there is a lot of exciting short fiction being produced these days!

Jess Walter’s debut collection, We Live in Water, is literally overflowing with story. The first several tales in the collection deal with parent/child relationships. Do I detect a motif? But then there were tales of male/female relationships, and then tales of crime and punishment. Eventually some themes did emerge, and if there is one commonality to be found throughout these stories, I believe it to be the question of honor. Walter explores this concept from a variety of angles and approaches.

Most of the tales within this collection are fairly realistic. The one exception is “Don’t Eat Cat.” I’m trying to think of how to describe it. It’s speculative and satirical, moving and poignant, all at once. It was one of my favorite stories in the collection, but as I made my way through the baker’s dozen tales, I proclaimed several to be my favorite for a time. The first was the title story, “We Live in Water.” The reader comprehends the significance of the title at the same time as the central character does. It’s a beautiful revelation.

A few of these stories seem to reside in the same Walterverse. The characters and settings of “Can of Corn” overlap with those of “The Brakes.” Less obviously, is the Mr. McAdam referenced in “Thief” (another favorite) he same Mr. McAdam who shows up later in “The Wolf and the Wild”? I guess it’s not surprising there would be some overlap. Most of these tales stick pretty close to Walter’s home territory of Spokane, Washington. His characters have challenges and fallibilities. They are flawed and funny at once. They are at all times believable.

I believe different story writers have different strengths. Some you read for their beautiful language. Others offer extraordinary insight into character. Mr. Walter is fine on both counts, but that’s not where he really shines. The greatest satisfaction of this collection is the completeness of the stories that he is telling. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They were unusually well-structured and well-plotted, regardless of length. They did not leaving me hungering for the rest of the tale. Simply put, Mr. Walter knows how to tell one hell of a good yarn.


  1. I've become a bigger fan of short fiction throughout the years thanks to some really fabulous collections - King, of course, but Joanne Harris ranks as one of my all time faves. Thanks to them I'm much more likely to try a collection of shorts than I would have been years ago. I have WE LIVE IN WATER in the TBR as we speak.

  2. You know, Becky, I have to admit that I really dislike Stephen King's short fiction. It's like he squeezes all the scariness into a super-concentrated form.

    I've only read one short story from Joanne Harris, but it was enjoyable.

    The best short story collection I've read of late is the only one I haven't yet reviewed: Tenth of December by George Saunders. It's amazing! It's up thre with my all-time favorite, nine Stories by J.D. Salinger.

  3. "...It's like he squeezes all the scariness into a super-concentrated form...."

    Chuckle. You say that like it's a bad thing. Ladyfingers, anyone?

    I wonder how much of the decline of the short was due to the loss of the fiction magazines. It's hard to tell cause from effect; the rise of TV and movies were as much a contributor to the decline as was any loss of interest in short stories. Now due to $0.99 stories at Amazon, short works seem to be making a comeback.

    There's an essay in there somewhere. . . and someone has undoubtedly already written it.

    For lovers of SF and fantasy, NESFA press has done a number of fine collections of short works. Their hardbacks are quite nicely priced when compared to $0.99 a story for on-line sites. I picked up their 6-volume set of Roger Zelazny short works a few years ago, but it wasn't my first NESFA purchase and won't be my last.

    1. See, that's exactly what I'm talking about! It's been about 30 years since I read "Survivor Type," but a single, evocative word brings it all rushing back. God, that was sick, but there was a story in that collection that gave me even bigger nightmares. Still, I really wish you hadn't typed that.

      The power of language.

      As for your thoughts on short fiction, they're interesting. I haven't seen much about the trend in the trades. I read seven story collections last year, which I thought was a lot. I wonder how many it will be this year?