Joan Wickersham (Photo by Nicholas Latimer)
“A story . . . can become close, airless. You cannot stay shut up in your own head anymore; you need a break, some fresh air. Let’s go outside: We’ll take a walk, down a New York City side street. It’s 1944 . . . ’’
This line from Joan Wickersham’s new book, The News from Spain, could easily be a comment on the author’s own view of short stories. At recent readings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peterborough, New Hampshire, Wickersham explained her love/hate relationship with the genre. “Too often every word and sentence in a short story points to some pivotal ‘a-ha’ moment. Many stories lack the roominess and depth of novels, which is a quality I appreciate in long fiction.”
Henry James famously called novels “large loose baggy monsters,” a wonderful description of the genre as realized by Tolstoy and Thackeray if ever there was one. But frequently it’s this “bagginess” that gives us a sense of life beyond the pages of the book. Novels are splendid at conveying the whole sweep of history, whether it’s personal or geographic history. While we, as readers, are only privy to specific scenes, conversations, or memories, writers like Flaubert, Franzen, and Faulkner excel at providing clues to both future and past. There is life beyond the pages of the novel, and in the hands of a talented writer, we have no trouble imagining what that life might be like.
As a friend of mine once said after completing a novel whose title I can’t recall: “After I finished, I couldn’t stop worrying about the main character. What’s going to happen to her?” Such an emotional, concerned response is a sure sign that the writer has accomplished his or her task.
Joan Wickersham celebrating the launch of The News From Spain at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
The brilliance of The News from Spain is that Joan Wickersham has ambitiously aimed for the scope and depth of a novel, but contained her writing within seven elegant “love” stories, each titled The News from Spain. How she has managed to squeeze so much insight, humor, and inventiveness into 208 pages astonishes me.
Wickersham understands that love comes in many forms and turns the traditional notion of “a love story” on its head. In The News from Spain we experience the rocky, but profound, love between mother and daughter, the discomfort of “settling” for a marriage partner, and the naivete of a young girl at boarding school being used.
As Wickersham poignantly demonstrates, love is a product not only of good and bad choices, but also of chance and timing that is beyond our control:
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 are never quite sure if your feelings are returned. You meet someone, you fall in love but you are able to keep your feelings mostly hidden; occasionally they cough, or break a dinner plate, or burn down the kitchen (accidentally? On purpose?), but mostly they stay out of sight when other people are around. At night they have the run of the house. It’s a creepy, even sinister, ménage.
Wickersham’s greatest strength is that her empathy for the human condition runs deep, and she is able to transport the reader into her characters’ lives with humor, precision, and (let’s just be honest) some damn fine writing. If you write fiction, brace yourself for some serious pangs of jealousy. This is some of the best fiction writing I’ve encountered in years. While reading, I couldn’t resist marking the sentences that stunned me–the passages that hit me like a splash of cold water on the face. By the time I finished Wickersham’s book, my review copy of The News from Spain was a mess of check marks, asterisks, underlines, and marginalia. That’s how good it is.
“The News from Spain has received rave reviews, but this memorable collection deserves more attention than it’s getting, for Wickersham is pushing the traditional notion of the short story, but she is accomplishing this difficult feat not through mere cleverness or trite experimentation, but through imagination and deep, ambitious writing.”
In one of my favorite stories, a biographer, his wife and young child visit a former actress named Alice, who is the widow of a race car driver the biographer is researching. Alice’s youthful, glamorous days in the spotlight, with its cocktail parties and world travels with her famous, handsome husband Denis, are long gone. Her alcoholism is luckily in check, but she now lives and works as a companion for a rich couple in order to make ends meet. There is affection and humor between Alice and her boss, Marjorie, but the class divide creates tension, as in this passage where Alice tries to say “No” when Marjorie asks her to go to town to pick up her library books:
So Alice had this perplexing, nuanced job, which had saved her life and which made saying even a rare “No” to Marjorie somewhat complicated and difficult. Alice thought it was a bit like a pinball machine, the “No” a little silver ball that you shot off as strategically as you could, but always with a sense of randomness, and then you stood and watched it ricocheting and bouncing off a series of moods and obligations and generous acts and small stored resentments and moments of gratitude and ingratitude, wondering curiously where it would come out. It might help to send another silver ball after it, to careen around and run into, perhaps altering its course: an explanation.
“It’s just that I have these young people coming to spend the day,” she told Marjorie. “A writer, in fact. He’s working on something about Denis.”
“Oh, how exciting,” Marjorie said, vexation apparently forgotten. “Now is this the same one who was here—let’s see, was it two years ago? Three?”
“No, that was a screenwriter,” Alice said
“And did anything ever happen about that? Do you hear from him?”
“He sent me a couple of Christmas cards, but not this past year. No, I’m sure I would have heard if a movie had actually been made.”
“Yes, we’d probably notice that, wouldn’t we?” Marjorie said laughing. “We’d notice if we were at the movies and it was the story of Alice. I think we’d notice.”
English novelist Roger King and Joan Wickersham catch up at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
In each tale, Wickersham masterfully weaves in the phrase, “the news from Spain.” This is an idea that could be gimmicky, but in Wickerhsam’s deft hands it gives the collection an even greater sense of momentum and cohesion. In this comic scene the biographer, Charlie, questions Alice about the day her husband Denis died. Charlie is annoyed that his wife Liza has decided to tag along, but the two women quickly bond: