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This is by way of a pendant to my previous post about short stories. Maureen Kincaid Speller picked up on that post and took it further in this discussion at Paper Knife. That, in turn, made me think further about short stories.

You see, there’s a story in Doctorow’s latest collection called ‘Heist’. It is, I think, one of the best things in the collection, beautifully told in truncated diaryesque form:

Sunday afternoon. A peddler in a purple chorister’s robe selling watches in Battery Park. Fellow with dreadlocks, a sweet smile, sacral presence. Doing well.

(There is something in that opening paragraph that reminds me irresistably of the opening of William Golding’s Free Fall. Possibly the shock of colour, the religious tone, I don’t know. But it is perhaps no coincidence that that is one of my favourite novels.)

Now ‘Heist’ is a wonderful story about a priest, already trying to cope with his loss of faith, having to deal with thefts from his church. Sound familiar? Yes, ‘Heist’ grew up into Doctorow’s novel City of God.

The problem is that for all I think ‘Heist’ is one of his best short stories, I also think City of God is perhaps his worst novel.

Which puzzled me, until I started thinking again about the distinction between novel and short story. It was Maureen’s piece, talking about fiction that presented as a short story but was really a novel that gave me the clue. I think City of God may be novel length, but it’s actually a short story.

By which I mean it is an impressionistic account of events seen in isolation, shorn of context. It is not performing the novelistic task of making sense of the world, but the short story task of presenting the puzzlement and confusion and mystery of the world.

Now all I’ve got to do is go back and see if City of God works better from this new perspective.

12 thoughts on “Heist

  1. I’ve long admired Max Apple’s story “The Oranging of America,” but I’ve never been able to finish the novel he then spun it into, The Profiteers. The story became the novel’s first chapter, and when I reach the end of it, I always feel as though the narrative’s over, because the story is so good, and ends so well, what could possibly follow it? I find it anticlimactic to turn the page and see “Chapter Two” printed there.

    1. I’ve just had a similar problem with Chris Adrian’s The Great Night. Loved the short story from The New Yorker, “A Tiny Feast”, which forms chapter three of the novel. But the novel, to that point and in the first few chapters after the story, feels very mechanical, completely at odds with the mood of the story. It does get better later, but really, in the main short stories do not do well as novels.

        1. Fix ups are different; they lie somewhere between a short story collection and an episodic novel.

          There are also novels that are expansions of short stories: Flowers for Algernon, Behold the Man. (Though I am convinced Moocock turned his novelette into a short novel mostly by breaking long paragraphs into several very short paragraphs.)

          But again, this is different. Where the problem really lies is when you have an excellent short story and then bolt more material onto it to turn it into a novel. Think of Kevin Brockmeier’s ‘Brief History of the Dead’, much more coherent as a story than as a novel.

          1. I agree, but I also disagree. I mean, I can imagine a fix-up coming about because the author had one very strong short story, and wrote the others either in imitation, or to try and fill out a collection. And then converting it into a novel. I don’t know of any specific instances of that occurring, but surely it has to have happened?

            But, yes, the “story expanded to novel” is something different. We should invent a name for it! How about…a fill-up?

            1. I know a lot of interesting fix-up novels (Pavane and The Chalk Giants by Keith Roberts are among my favourites) but I don’t really know any that fit your description. There are, inevitably, some where individual stories are weaker than others, and I suppose some fix-up must fit your description – I’ve just not come across any example.

              As for ‘fill-up’ – yes, that’s a good name. If we start using it, everyone else is bound to follow.

  2. For whatever reasons, the ONLY Doctorow novel I’ve ever even been able to finish was CITY OF GOD, which at the time I loved. (It’s been ten years or so.) It was sort of clearly a mess, but one that worked on me.

    1. You’re not the only one. A lot of people seem to rate City of God as one of his best books. They may be right. The problem may be that I had read too much Doctorow, and I was looking for something that particular novel wasn’t doing.

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