Sunday, February 06, 2005
I end up reading most of the Pushcart Anthology every year but some favorite short fiction this year: "Immortality" by Yiyun Li and "Dog Song" by Ann Pancake. The Li story was simply surprising in its subject matter and in the turns that it takes. It blends an old-fashioned storytelling voice with some very contemporary language, as well as blending history with current affairs. Really interesting. And the Pancake story wowed me with its voice. Plus it's about dogs (kind of). I'm a sucker for dogs. I didn't entirely understand what happened in the end, but the language was so good that I (almost) didn't care that I didn't understand. Both stories felt very removed from the majority of stories I see in workshop, in magazines, in books ... they both felt honest-to-goodness imagined.
I read this novel when it first came out in 2001 because I liked the short story (which turned out to be the opening section) that was in the Pushcart Anthology. I reread it recently because I wanted to look at how Walbert created the tone, which is mournful and poetic, and which stayed with me for years. The opening section is still my favorite part--the plot itself feels (to me) unsatisfying in the end. But throughout Walbert uses concrete scenes to create a lyric voice. Typically I think of lyricism as coming from more abstract or metaphorical storytelling, but she is able through her sentence structure and her emphasis on certain images--which are literal not metaphoric--to inject lyricism into the characters' interactions. She helps her cause by choosing settings--like a rundown mansion that was a former Underground Railroad stop--that lend themselves to mournful description, but ultimately it's a matter of precise word choice and a very tight voice. The extended metaphor of the book--the heavily symbolic gardens of Kyoto which were saved from Allied bombing during WWII--are also used as concretely as possible--represented through a book The Gardens of Kyoto, that passes amongst several characters, and through the gardens themselves. The extended metaphor is one of the things Walbert did extremely well, allowing her to inject an entire subplot and layer of meaning into her under-plotted, but lovely novel.