“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.
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.
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.”
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:
Now the three of them were waiting, sitting at the table with the afternoon sun making a drama of the dirty lunch dishes, to talk about Denis’s death.
“I know this must be a painful subject,” Charlie began.
“No, it’s all right,” Alice said gently. She felt sorry for him. “Remember, it’s over forty years ago.”
“You weren’t with him there, were you?”
She shook her head. “I’d gone to Paris, to visit friends.”
“And so—well, I guess I’m wondering how you felt, when you got the news from Spain.”
The news from Spain. Oh, dear God, “the news from Spain”! Spoken in that deep ponderous undertaker voice. The unctuous importance of it, as if he were saying: The news from Hiroshima. The news from Dallas. Lighten up, Charlie, she felt like telling him.
Her eyes met Liza’s, and she saw that they were united, somehow, against Charlie’s solemn ardor. But she also felt an obligation to protect his dignity.
She made her own voice serious and hushed. “Well, it was terrible,” she said. And it had been. But at the moment she was feeling pretty jaunty. In fact, she was afraid that if her eyes met Liza’s again, she might start laughing.
Wickersham is a voracious reader and lover of art, film, music, and architecture, and these passions come through in small, but meaningful, touches throughout the book. One of her stories re-imagines Elvira from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro as modern-day women who have been hurt by their former lovers and slowly form an alliance through “a patient and safe friendship.”
Elvira’s womanizing “Johnny” is humorously re-imagined as a screenwriter:
This man, this skinny dark weather-beaten intense manic guy in the cafe, was like a giant mosquito suddenly buzzing around her face. She kept trying to swat him, but he kept buzzing, and for some reason this made her laugh. So she went out with him.
Johnny breaks Elvira’s heart, but they have an unexpected, chance encounter later in life:
They had not seen each other again for sixteen years, after she found out about the first wife and the second wife and the future wife and all the other women. Then they ran into each other at an artists’ colony. “Well,” he said when they first saw each other the day he arrived with a script he wanted to revise, “I’ve been wondering when this would happen.” He reached for her hands and she automatically gave them to him.
Wickersham intersperses Elvira and Rosina’s tale with the memoirs of their original creator, 18th-century librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. This was the only aesthetic choice in the book that didn’t quite work for me, although I loved the contemporary tale of the two women.
Two stories in the collection are inspired by historical figures, though this fact only becomes apparent late in the narrative (and some readers may never discover that the unnamed female “journalist,” “famous woman,” and “New York doctor” in one tale describes a real-life love triangle between Martha Gellhorn, Eleanor Roosevelt, and David Gurewitsch).
The humiliation of age, of feeling exposed, of making the wrong move at the wrong time is an ongoing theme in The News from Spain:
Maybe the journalist did know how the famous woman felt, and was sorry, but not that sorry. You pays your money and you takes your chances. Or maybe she knew and thought it pathetic and ridiculous, and old lady’s ravenous longing for a handsome young man. Excuse me, your desire is showing—the way you might tell someone that her slip is showing, to save her from humiliation.
Another story dramatizes the real-life marriage of choreographer George Balanchine and the paralyzed ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, who was tragically stricken by polio. (Again, the main characters are never identified). The dancer and her gay caretaker, Malcolm, form a deep bond when the husband and Malcolm’s lover (a dancer in the choreographer’s company) go on tour together in France.
The ballerina tries to come to terms with her husband’s infidelities, while Malcolm lovingly looks after her. He carries her to her taxi, to her bed, and to the bathroom, where she lies on the floor, helplessly watching him fill the tub for a rare bath. They invent comical stories about the cat to entertain themselves. Like the story of Alice, the former actress, the employer-employee relationship between the dancer and Malcolm complicates their friendship, particularly on the day that Malcolm takes Alice to The Oak Room at The Plaza to meet a publisher:
“I hope you’ll have lunch with us,” she said to…
But now again in the lobby, as he settles her in the wheelchair, she has the impulse to ask him to stay. She scrambles to think of some therapeutic pretext that might make it easier for him to say yes, but there really isn’t one; and the photographers hands are already reaching out to grasp the handles of the chair, and then the chair is moving across the lush, dizzying carpet, the vast chaotic space, the unfamiliar clamor, so she ends up not saying anything.
Only during lunch, as they’re eating their salads, does it register with her that beneath his overcoat he was wearing a suit. She’d never seen him in a suit before. He might have put it on just to carry her into this posh lobby, but maybe he was hoping that she would repeat the invitation. She wishes she had.
There is no question that these characters have complicated, worldly lives. Like a gifted cinematographer, Wickersham zooms in closer, allows us to eavesdrop, and then (regrettably) cuts us off from our role as privileged voyeur. In every case, Wickersham left me wanting more, and yet her word choices, structure, and editing are all pitch-perfect. It’s an impressive accomplishment.
The News from Spain has received rave reviews from publications like the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the book was just chosen as an Amazon Book of the Month and for Kirkus Reviews‘ Best of 2012 list, as it should have been. 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. The stories of Chekhov, William Trevor, and James Salter spring to mind, for Wickersham shares their empathetic eye, their affinity for the domestic and the marginalized, and their profound understanding of human relationships.
In the final story (about Gellhorn and Roosevelt), the first-person narrator makes a startling confession:
Some of this is fiction, and some isn’t.
At the age of almost sixty, I fell in love with a man who wasn’t my husband.
I disagree with Kirkus Reviews about this final piece being “slightly bumpier.” I thought the contemporary and historical narratives worked well together (better than in the Mozart opera story). What ties the two narratives together in the last tale is not only a family connection, but also the fact that all of the women in the story are strong, bright, powerful women with successful careers. And yet, when it comes to love, there is no amount of intelligence that will help them make “the right” decision:
I am writing about women, about love and humiliation. Men do it to us, but mostly we do it to ourselves. We love the wrong people; we love at the wrong time. We think that we can make it right, reconcile the irreconcilable. We are like game-show contestants who don’t know when to stop. We could go home right now with the money and the washing machine, but we want the car so we keep going and we get the answer wrong, or choose the wrong door, or spin the wheel too hard, and then we have to go home with nothing.
Put this short-story collection on your must-read list, and if you’re looking for a gift for a reader in your life, The News from Spain is the perfect book.
About Joan Wickersham
Joan Wickersham was born in New York City. She is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her new essay about the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is included in the recently published anthology My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe; she has published essays and reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune; and she has contributed on-air essays to National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.
For more information about Joan and her work, please visit her website.
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