When is a short story also a novel?

I’m just getting around to reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (I’m halfway through the book) which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. It’s interesting to me that the sideways approach to the characters and their stories is similar to Olive Kittredge, another Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Both books have their main characters in the title, and yet neither book spends its time telling a linear narrative about the main character. Olive Kittredge is referred to in some of the short stories forming the “novel,” she appears as a main character in some places and passes through stories in other cases. In the Diaz book, Oscar Wao appears in the beginning of the book, but then the book shifts perspective to Oscar’s sister, and right now I’m spending a sizeable chunk of reading about Oscar’s mother.

I wouldn’t call the Diaz book a collection of short stories but I suppose some could argue that the way he focuses on one character’s perspective at a time does resemble the feel of a short story inside a larger narrative. And Diaz is a short story teller (whose work regularly appears in the New Yorker…) so this makes sense.

In similar fashion, some people say Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From The Goon Squad (a book I somehow can’t get through…) is also a collection of short stories in novel form. I don’t have an opinion on that yet. But yeah, it also won the Pulitzer.

This type of storytelling feels very contemporary to me. If readers have shorter attention spans from all the internet surfing they do, why not let them assemble the full picture of a novel in their heads while absorbing pieces of a narrative in short story sized chunks? Or maybe the authors purposefully leave sections of a linerar narrative out, which encourages the reader to fill in the gaps on their own.

Regardless, the message (at least from the Pulitzer committee) is that short stories can be assembled to make a damn fine novel. Heck, short stories can be published as a collection and win the Pultizer too (once again I refer to the magnificent Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, but for a really old school reference we can also go with Tales of the South Pacific by Michner.)

If you’re wondering, yes, this is what I’ve been thinking about lately. On planes, in airports, in the back of taxi cabs, and in hotel rooms, like the one I’m sitting in right now…

A friend of mine read The Ties That Bind recently (my latest story to be published, which appears in The Washington Pastime) and he remarked, you have a way of writing that is very visual. I get that comment a lot, I told him. You need to find a way to pull people in deeper into your stories, he said. And then added, somewhat offhandedly, maybe you should write a novel.

Yeah, yeah… a novel. Write a novel. Everyone says I should… Sure. I should. But in my wildest dreams I cannot imagine sitting down and Writing A Novel.

But writing a short story? Well, I can do that. I know I can do it because I’ve already done it a few times. People even seem to like reading them from time to time… 😉

So maybe it’s time to write a collection of short stories pretending to be a novel. Maybe it’s time to structure a set of intersecting narratives and characters that could dance and cavort together, that will somehow form a novel.

I imagine when you read this collection of stories (you know, the ones I haven’t written yet) they will appear like a flock of birds, flying in a random formation but somehow moving together in a way that, when they zig and zag across the sky, draws your eye to follow them… to see where they go.

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