Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Patrick Somerville Kills the Short Story (in a Good Way, in a Good Way)

I'm happy to say I've recently gotten around to reading Patrick Somerville's "Trouble," a collection of shorts released way back in 2006. Somerville himself has been on my radar for quite a while, given my enthusiasm and great interest in Chicago-area writers. The whole "reading his work" just made sense, then.

I also realize I've been on something of a short story kick of late, much to my surprise. I love short stories, don't misunderstand me. It's just, I dunno, I've always felt something about them, call it length, hampered their ability to be of real heft. The word "tome" could never, for example, be ascribed to something so un-tome like as the collected short stories of Ernest Hemingway (I've of course excluded Papa's tomes, such as "For Whom The Bell Tolls" -- which c'mon, even sounds like a tome). Tome itself sounds like itself, onomatopoeic and suchlike, right? Right. Tomes are about white whales and wars and peace and wakes for the Irish and the rainbows belonging to gravity.

Well, short stories don't sound weighty and hefty like tomes / aren't about the various things listed -- in the same sprawling detail, but what does that mean? Nothing. They're great. Short stories do it with pith. I mean, not a perfect analogy, but who would you rather watch, a blazing Usain Bolt dashing faster than you thought kinesthetically possible, or some other guy, whoever, distance running for what feels like forever, boringly? I believe I've made my point. Or no I haven't. (I already admitted the analogy was imperfect.) But regardless, a point was made and if that point is anything then it's this: I enjoyed Somerville's collection, was rapt with interest even.

His stories run the evocative gamut of the pathos spectrum: emotionally charged, at times hilarious (see "English Cousin" & "Trouble and the Shadowy Death Blow"), and most of all, earnestly contemplative. It's the keen eye Somerville shows for escalation, which drives his stories (in that way not dissimilar from how Usain Bolt builds momentum) and compelled me to continue reading. Gripped pretty steadily throughout, most of his stories I went through in one sitting. There were only a couple times that I needed to return later to some and not for a lack of interest. It might be akin to the feeling one gets when one is editor of a literary magazine and comes across a piece of fiction with which he or she really connects and thus wants to publish.

The stories of adolescence and young adulthood rang true (for whatever that matters -- I suppose when I use the cliche "rang true" what I'm really saying is they seem to have accomplished the thing the author (Somerville) was going for, which I won't presume to know), and equally successful were his stories depicting the melancholy of old age, a DeLillo-esque spirit to life's winter, particularly well evidenced by "The Cold War." If I were to compare Somerville to two authors with whom I'm familiar, one is Don DeLillo, showcased especially in the aforesaid and "The Future, the Future, the Future," which had a delightfully "Americana" feel about it.

The other would be, yes, sorry, George Saunders -- especially well showcased in "English Cousin" -- which was my favorite of the bunch -- and "Puberty." Concerning "Puberty," I get the feeling Saunders would definitely appreciate the inclination of Brandon, the awkward, early adolescent main character, to imagine himself a member of a group he dubs: "STRONG POTENTIAL" (caps Somerville's).

All in all, the sad stuff is adequately sad and effective; the funny stuff is as funny as the best stories I've read all year. Honest. Check Somerville out. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern University, which makes me want to attend their workshop all the more now.

A FEW OTHER ITEMS: I was kindly lent a copy of the McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue 18 featuring stories by another Chicago creative writing prof, Adam Levin, whom I've been chatting about quite a bit of late, also, I know. I read his short "Hot Pink," and, listen, I'm on my short story kick and all, so cut me some slack if you feel I'm a bit prone to hyperbole as a result, but honest, it blew me away. It started a little slowly. I wasn't sure why I should be interested in the seemingly meatheaded narrator, a Chicago Polish kid, Jack Krakow, but by the end I felt I understood. It's a surprising tale, and uses the Chicago approximate west side backdrop nicely.

I mention Levin also because he and other young writers like Somerville will likely, should they stay in these parts, become very relevant within the next couple years. I suspect they could be a part of a new literary guard. I'm keeping my eye on some others. I also enjoyed a short story by the very good Chicago-area writer Lindsay Hunter, which you can read here at Everyday Genius. And in the same issue of McSweeney's (issue 18, January 15, 2005) YET ANOTHER Chicago writer, Joe Meno, (who according to his wiki is currently teaching at Columbia College with Levin) has a nice entry called "People are Becoming Clouds."

Also, FYI, on Sunday I plan to attend this:

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