Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An Obsessive Meditation on Joan Wickersham's Story Collection, "The News from Spain."

I don’t read as many short story collections as I’d like, but as I may have mentioned in the past, I tend to avoid anthologies. When I do read Best American Short Stories, there’s a delayed gratification involved. What I’m really looking forward to is finding an author in the bunch where I can devour the author’s whole collection.

What with Alice Munro’s Dear Life just released, and Munro being about the bestselling contemporary story writer we consistently sell, there’s a lot of talk about stories at Boswell. But maybe it’s not all connected. Scott Hutchins was discussing short stories at his talk for the novel A Working Theory of Love. Someone asked him about the difference between writing stories, and a whole bunch of metaphors were tossed about (a story is a photograph, a novel is a film is one I use sometimes) but we all laughed at the paraphrased quote from Lorrie Moore: “a short story is a flower, a novel is a job.” That one’s for the writers!

Who are we kidding? A short story is a job too, only it doesn’t pay well and it’s hard to get promoted. And I mean that in every sense. I was looking for interviews with Joan Wickersham for her beautiful new short story collection, The News From Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story, and I couldn’t find one, though admittedly, one sometimes can adjust the search algorithm and uncover something new.

Why that’s a good metaphor for Wickersham’s stories--each story further adjusts the search algorithm. We have seven stories, and we can’t refer to them by name because all of them are called “The News from Spain.” I finally read this book after the umpteenth person I trust told me that I had to. I think the very first recommender was the writer Elinor Lipman, who had been recommending Wickersham on our bookcase when Boswell first opened. She let me know there was a collection coming. Our rep Jason was talking it up to various booksellers; Stacie read it very early and sent in a wonderful rec. Stacie and Sharon turned into fans. When I chatted about the book with Jim Higgins at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he told me that Lanora from late Next Chapter had enthused over the collection as well.

All this for a short story collection from a writer who is not quite the household word that is Alice Munro (yet), though she has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for nonfiction for her memoir, The Suicide Index, in 2008. And I feel like years ago, Lipman also made a push for me to read Paper Anniversary. I know they shared an editor in Jane Rosenman. Over the years, I paid attention to a lot of Rosenman's books. I see she is now an independent editor, and is working on a book called Together Tea, from Marjan Kamali, which is coming from Ecco in the spring.

So I started reading the first story, which another writer might have called “The Sands of Time,” Suzanne has arrived for a wedding party with her husband John. Her friend Barbara is marrying Barnaby; the motivations are a bit shaky. At the same time Suzanne has recently become aware that her husband has had an affair. It’s a simply set up, beautifully written. There’s no hitting you over the head with anything, though our customer Don did tell me the story blew him away, which does seemingly involve some force.

And then the next story comes. I call it “The Nursing Home” but I think with time, I could come up with a better title. Yes, it has become an obsession with me, giving Joan Wickersham’s stories pet names. It’s about Rebecca, a bookstore owner, visiting her mother Harriet, who is in a nursing home. They haven’t had a very good relationship in the past, the pull has gotten stronger. And yes, Rebecca has been having an affair.

And that’s the thing about The News from Spain. The second story starts to change the way I thought about the first. I’m beginning to see the different kinds of loves playing against each other. I start noticing how the past plays against the present, and by the time I’m on “Spanish Teacher” (not its real name), I’ve sworn off on carnal desire forever. It’s just not going very well in these stories. Does it ever?

I was reminded a bit of Joan Silber's Ideas of Heaven. Each subsequent story grew out of an idea in the previous entry. With this, Silber was able to travel around the world and back and forth through time. I had that sense of wonder with Wickersham’s work, albeit closer to home. And I am reminded a bit of Alice Mattison too, perhaps Men Giving Money, Women Yelling, in the way that the stories are both discrete and connected.

So the stories continue. A gay dancer is a caregiver to an ailing woman whose husband has almost continual dalliances. The widow of a race car driver now survives as a paid companion to an older couple; a biographer arrives to use her as source material.

I finished the collection, and I had several strong urges. I wanted to talk about the stories with other people who’d read it, I wanted several folks I knew to read it (Johanna, who recommended Silber, and Bob S., who was big on Mattison), and I wanted to go back and reread the stories. I’m confident that the more I read, the more I talk to other people, the more layers of the stories will be unlocked to me.

I was trying to explain the linking of the stories to someone, and it made the title sound like way more than it was. What’s the importance of the title? “It’s a motif,” I said, “like in music, where you here a flute play something and in another completely different movement, the cello recalls that melody, only now it’s much more somber.” You can tell I gave up piano lessons at around 12 and never looked back, right

Stacie and I started talking about the stories and the different types of love were represented. Which were more memorable? Why do we so much prefer one type over all else and what does that get us? And most surprisingly, why did we think the themes of The News from Spain recall another book we both loved this year, My Heart is an Idiot, which from the outside, could not seem any more different.

And then Sharon said to me, “I love the story about Eleanor Roosevelt” and I replied “What story?” And “You know, I just don’t have time to do searches on who all these characters are, but that last story, which I now have to call “Eleanor Roosevelt” is clearly her. Is it? It seemed so universal.

But is that one of the many things Wickersham is thinking? I think about this paragraph:

“You meet someone, you fall in love, you marry. You meet someone, you fall in love, it turns into a disaster. You meet someone, you fall in love, but one of you is married, or both are: you have or don’t have an affair. You meet someone, you fall in love, but you are never quite sure if your feelings are returned…”

As someone noted, our beginnings and ends are pretty much the same—it’s the middle that changes. I had so many questions. I read a bunch of reviews and then started trawling for interviews. But I really couldn’t find anything. Maybe Wickersham didn’t feel comfortable discussing the stories. But what the heck? I sent off some questions anyway.

And what do you know? I got a reply! Details tomorrow.

1 comment:

Ibid said...

Lovely reflection; thanks for it. Lush and efficient at once. Your post has convinced me that it's one of the next books in line for me. Also, I love reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your bookly thoughts and glimpses into the world of independent bookstores.