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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lore Segal's Shakespeare's Kitchen

Conventional wisdom in the book world is that collections of short stories don't do nearly as well as novels. There are all sorts of reasons put forth, many of which center on the argument that the modern short story, the kind generated in writers' workshops or published in the New Yorker, is lame. In the introduction to McSweeney's 13, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Michael Chabon complains about the prevalence of "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." And in fact, this is a dead-on description of some kinds of short stories.

Nonetheless, I happen to like short stories, or more precisely, I have no problem with the genre. Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Neil Gaiman, and Jorge Luis Borges are some of my favorite writers, and they excel at the form. I absolutely adored Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial, Stephen Marché created a fictional body of literature spanning hundreds of years with just a handful of stories, and McSweeney's has put out several great collections, including the one mentioned above. A.S. Byatt, Kate Atkinson, and many others have also written good short stories.

Which brings me to Shakespeare's Kitchen, a collection of short stories I picked up at the library on a whim. These stories are linked, centering around the character Ilka Weisz who was the protagonist of Segal's earlier novel (something I did not know until after I finished the book). Ilka is an expat from Vienna, an academic who comes to work for the Concordance Institute that . . . well, I'm not exactly sure what it does. The stories are perhaps not as plot-heavy as Chabon et al. would like, but together they form a narrative over Ilka's life as she interacts with hapless ivory tower types. I enjoyed the book, though I am content I only borrowed it from the library rather than purchasing it. What struck me most was the writing style -- there is a timeless quality to the way Segal writes, where we seem to glide over events and it is never quite clear what happens when, how much time has passed, or even what decades the book is set in. What I find interesting is that this is an effect I find often in literature with a fantastical element, like Link's or Bender's work, whereas this book is more realistic (well, as realistic as an academic satire can be). The only exception is the climax of the book, where a Japanese student of Ilka's wires a conference on genocide sponsored by the Institute so that the auditorium, the campus, the entire town is subject to the screams of people suffering in concentration camps and the bombing of Japan. As a metaphor (perhaps it is too literal to be called that) for the permanent consequences of atrocities that cannot be erased or ignored by any amount of analysis and talk and study, it is certainly apt, and the pall of World War II hangs over the events of the book, but it seemed a little out of place.

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