Message in a Bottle
Many Words About Relatively Few Words

I wrote some time ago about the special pleasures of really fat big-boned books, and it remains true that there’s nothing like sinking deeply into the warm bath that is a long novel. There’s not enough time to indulge in one of those every day, though, so lately I’ve been looking into the bookish equivalent of the brisk shower—the novella. What is that exactly? Well, if it’s longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, it’s probably a novella. Somewhere between 15000 and 50000 words, or 50 to 175 pages, just to give a ballpark definition. Stephen King once called the form “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic,” probably because fiction of that length can be a tough sell, difficult to fit into a magazine or a collection and perhaps too slim to market on its own. But as publishing options expand and daily life grows more distracting, it feels as if more writers and readers are willing to eschew the heavier classes, at least some of the time, and enjoy a bantamweight bout.

Two Island Books favorites of the past year were slender things indeed. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson had a mere 128 pages, while We the Animals by Justin Torres was 144 pages long. For the purposes of off-the-cuff blogging, that would be more than enough evidence for me to start expounding on the Resurgence of the Novella, but this is a serious journal of ideas, so I’m held to stricter standards. Around here, it takes three to make a trend, so let me cast about to find another example.

The first that comes to mind is Rebecca Lee’s The City Is a Rising Tide, a book that took ten years to hone into its final form. The result of this obviously painstaking effort is a marvel of concision, with a complex story that deftly hopscotches from China to North Carolina to the plains of middle Canada. Lee’s sympathetic but fundamentally untrustworthy narrator works for a nonprofit organization that’s attempting to build a spiritual retreat along the Yangtze River, but given the impending damming of the river, she knows the project to be a futile effort. These professional troubles are further compounded and paralleled by an unrequited romance with her boss. Drifting along in apparent passivity, she nonetheless becomes the central figure in a series of financial, legal, and even cinematic crises. Even as the settings vary, the emphatic center of the book is New York. The city is lit with a nostalgic 1990s warmth (how much of that nostalgia is intentional and how much is simply inevitable when referencing the period before 9/11?) that makes this melancholic comedy of manners a real love letter to Manhattan. It’s more than that, though. Rising Tide treats an entire network of personal, political, sociological, aesthetic, and even theological topics; it’s surprising how many ingredients are combined into something that initially feels so light. One character says, “A person can carry a whole world of ideas and associations and plotlines, don’t you see?” Rebecca Lee proves you can carry that world conveniently in your pocket. It’s a marvelous read, but it’s just over 200 pages and came out a few years ago, so it’s slightly too long and too old to make a perfect threesome. 

Instead I’ll try The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer. It’s only 133 pages, so I’m on safe ground lengthwise. The book speaks in the imagined voice of Captain Frederick Benteen, survivor of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, as he reminisces about his experiences with Custer’s army. The narrator was a real participant in the battle whose company escaped the massacre, and he was frustrated in later life to see his name tarnished for an excess of cautiousness while his reckless general became a folk hero. Inspired by a letter that offers him a chance to redeem his reputation, the fictional Benteen relates his version of events with remarkable accuracy, but the story doesn’t focus on military tactics. It’s the personalities that come to the fore, along with the inner landscape of minds at war. The boredom and crass humor of the barracks share stage time with the thrilling danger of combat, rounding out the cardboard cutouts from our textbooks. Falconer’s great achievement is finding poetic language that brings life and significance to every detail, however mundane it might otherwise appear. Pure history buffs may not find exactly what they’re looking for, but lovers of fiction can’t help but be impressed. Fresh as the story is in my mind, though, I realize that it too is a few years past its first publication, so maybe it’s not topical enough to prove my point.

Lucinella by Lore Segal? It’s a remarkably effective satire of a rarefied subculture that simultaneously celebrates it. The titular heroine is one of my favorite fictional characters, a sweet-natured but sharp-tongued poet striving to make her way in the low-stakes but cutthroat world of writer’s retreats and cocktail parties. She’s so multi-faceted she has to appear in more than one incarnation—older and younger visions of herself pop in continually to comment on the action. All three manifestations can be charming or annoying, and Lucinella has (they have?) a quality that’s unusual in fiction, the self-awareness to recognize her imperfections. She and her compatriots are exceedingly bright, and Segal displays that intelligence convincingly instead of just asserting it. Few books are this smart, and fewer still are this witty and playful at the same time. I dare say no others manage the feat in less than 160 pages. It was published more recently than the others I’ve mentioned, but it still doesn’t qualify for my trend-piece because it’s a reprint of the original release, which has been unavailable since the 1970s. 

Wait, I know another novella that came out this past year. It’s called The Duel, and it’s by Heinrich von Kleist. Or is it Giacomo Casanova? Joseph Conrad? Anton Chekhov? Alexander Kuprin? All of the above, actually. Five different authors at different times in different places all chose the same title for their very different stories of romance and rapiers. They’re great tales on their own, but taken together they’re like a mosaic portrait of a cultural phenomenon. The archaic practice of dueling, where honor was purchased in spasms of ritualized violence, is an ideal subject for the narrow turf covered by the novella. Narratives need conflict, and novellas need containment; two antagonists choosing swords or pistols fill the bill quite nicely. OK, all these stories were written over a hundred years ago, but if a hip publishing outfit like Melville House has chosen the present moment to bring them out again, I think we can be sure that we’re seeing a trend. Skinny books, like skinny jeans, are officially part of the zeitgeist.

—James