In this compilation, two larger potential narratives are at work, in the sense that many of the stories are linked either by vague references or shared characters. As a whole, the collection is unified and purposeful, exploring the delicacy of relationships between people both struggling against and being swept up in modern life. But taken individually, many of the stories do not stand independently. The writing, though beautiful, fails to recognize the differences between a novel and a short story.
Gordon, one of the most prominent Irish-American fiction writers, has six acclaimed novels amongst her credits, as well a memoir investigating the life of her father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who died when she was seven, and a biography of Joan of Arc.
Her previous book of stories “Temporary Shelter,” collected again in this volume, provides one of the would-be narratives, telling the generational tale of Irish immigrants navigating life, love, and familial responsibility as they are denied the promise of the American Dream. These stories focus on a single pre-World War II Irish-American family: the O’Reillys. There’s a lot of promise for a longer unified work of fiction here, but the tension is not immediate enough to be effective in the span of a few pages. Even Gordon seems to acknowledge this, dedicating several stories to the O’Reillys, as if one cannot contain them. I did not find this family compelling until I had reached the third story. Taken together, they’re quite lovely. But a short story should be self-contained, which is hard to accomplish with such ambitious themes.
Others in the collection (mostly the new and uncollected stories) track the fractured modern-day Irish-American family — with second spouses, sons of lovers, and step-fathers. They contrast nicely with those about the more traditional Irish-American family in “Temporary Shelter,” and are connected in subtler, thematic ways. There are some great set-ups here, with the possibility of tension that befits a shorter fiction (meeting your husband’s ex-lover, the small intimacies between a woman and her podiatrist), but mostly, that is drowned in the kind of background information and summary befitting a novel. Actual scene-writing, when it occurs, is well-done, but we hardly get enough of these to drive the stories. And like any collection, its reading requires us to invest in several separate plots and characters in a short period of time. It’s a lot of energy for a reader to expend.
There are exceptions. “Watching the Tango” is absolutely stunning, sparse and is a successful example of the power of restraint, which helps explain how the book recently won the Story Prize, beating two lesser-known short-listed authors for the $20,000 prize. The main characters don’t move or really speak, but in watching dancers onstage, the tension between them builds quietly yet powerfully. “Intertextuality” and “The Deacon” stand on their own. “Bishop’s House,” which finds a nice balance between summary and scene-writing, has the most memorable epiphany in the collection-it is quite surprising and good. But some of the epiphany-driven stories showcase flat secondary characters, who commit various acts of cruelty, selfishness, or snobbery in order to nudge the protagonist along to some self-realization.
In “A Writing Lesson,” I think Gordon articulates the problem nicely: “But if you are not writing a fairy tale, the center of your fiction is the avoidance of action, the will, steadfastly clung to out of love and hatred, not to change, but be silent.” Anyone who has taught creative writing can appreciate the worth of that rule. It teaches restraint but in no way should the short story always stop there. Even the most mundane characters should be capable of devastation, action that shapes our lives just as much as our everyday stasis. In its steadfast clinging, this 457-page collection barely moves.