If there's a form of literature more difficult to pull off successfully than the short story, this reviewer doesn't know about it. Poetry, maybe -- although the poem, liberated from formal structure, allows more room for illusion and tricks. It can fly where it wants -- take it or leave it -- and even when empty it can sound mighty fine.
The story, however, is bound by shape as much as by image and voice. It begins and it ends and it needs to cohere, no matter how "experimental" or fragmented it becomes. If the novel is a movie, the story is a painting, both immediate and permanently fixed. Like life, it knows only two dimensions, the now and the then, and it has to deal with both at once. This is why so many stories (and people) fail -- they can't make the two things meet.
T. Alan Broughton takes on that challenge in his splendid new collection of short stories, Suicidal Tendencies. A poet as well as a writer of fiction, Broughton has also authored Preparing to Be Happy, Dreams Before Sleep, In the Country of Elegies and The Jesse Tree. Until recently, he was the Corse Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Vermont. Yet he confesses that every time he sits down to write he still feels "baffled and anxious. ...I only wonder how I got away with it."
Get away with it he does. He writes, in "The Wars I Missed": "I am standing on the platform of the railroad station in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I am twelve years old and on my way to school. It is a day of October contrasts -- cool and damp in the frosted shade but warm where the sun cuts out its sharp-angled blocks.
"I suppose this is Indian Summer," he notes, "although now that I am much older and live in a less hospitable climate, I recall nothing in Pennsylvania so stark with contrast as the reprieve of Indian Summer in New England."
Simple, no? But it isn't. "I am trying to say something about The Present," writes Broughton, "about being witness in the Flesh, and I want to call up something as proof of what that is and what it is not. ...I want to pluck out this single day, even though it is many years distant from me now. But in doing so, I make it bear a burden of representation, standing for more than its single self. The maze we wander through has no fixed center, or at least I have abandoned the idea that a center waits for us. And any single day is wrapped in its past and future."
And there's the rub -- the future, in a story, is also the past. It's something already experienced, already known, if not ever or completely understood. By necessity, meaning is imposed on time and place, people and events: "I choose this day and warn that I am no philosopher. No compelling logic forms what follows. Shapes, perhaps. A pattern I think or want to perceive. Instances. For instance."
Or put it this way, as Broughton does in "The Classicist," the story of Miriam, a 40-year-old woman and only child who comes home to take care of her aging father, a retired professor of Greek. Miriam's mother, who started out as her father's student, has recently died, and the old man doesn't always know where he is, or what, or when. Miriam explains,
At his worst moments he believes the universe began its dizzy topple and downward spin eons ago when sea creatures moved into the open air, and above all when they pushed up off all fours, incurring back problems by defying gravity. He has suffered minor back ailments all his life and has a theory that the brain functions more calmly and tolerantly when attached to a horizontal stem." But he remembers his Greek and can still teach a class -- not his own -- without a blink or a pause for breath: "Even now, though his memory fails him in the details of his own history, none of what he has read and studied has been lost. I am sure he will still be able to recite most of Aeschylus by heart when he is staring at my face without recognition.
And what will Miriam have? Like all children, she rebelled against her parents and refused to study the language that made their world go round, learning Latin instead out of childhood spite and then dropping it when it proved her point. Now, "I felt like the lame boy left on the cold hillside after the Pied Piper had walked under the earth with all his charges. I had heard the music but could not join the procession."
Almost casually, Miriam admits to "one more confusion. I am pregnant. Furthermore, pardon the pun, I have no conception who the father is. ...By the time I had come home on the latest pilgrimage ...I had only a few days left in which to make up my mind. Kill it or keep it. I am not a convincing Medea figure."
And so she asks, not knowing if her father will even hear her question: "Did you and mother want to have me?"
"Always," her father says.
"No, I mean did you plan to have me?"
He laughed gently. "Oh, that. No. We never made plans about the important things in our lives. When they happened, they felt planned...But I gather it takes a very determined sperm to make the voyage. He probably doesn't even know where or why he is going, only that something is waiting for him there, wherever that is, and that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts. We wouldn't bother trying if we didn't sense that, would we?"
Miriam is neither consoled nor upset by her father's response. "Maybe it is only an anticipatory twitch," she thinks, "but I am sure I feel that baby stirring within me."
All the characters in Suicidal Tendencies are linked in their ambivalence, as all of the stories are linked by place, time and circumstance. This is not a literal thing -- Broughton moves easily from Pennsylvania and New England to Mexico and Rome, from man to woman, old to young, parent to child and worker to boss -- but the same "confusion" haunts them all, as it haunts us all in life. What? Why? Why now? Why not? Always there's a death, either recent or recalled. Someone in these stories is always missing, who has left before her time, or his, and who casts a long shadow over the lives of the survivors.
"You think we live after we die?" asks one, a drunken handyman working for "summer people" on an unnamed lake: "I suppose not. Don't talk about it much anywhere. I guess that means the odds are near zero, right? Just get sucked up by the grass and trees but you don't even know it because you aren't there anyway."
Well, not hardly, as the help might say, not in Broughton's exceptional hands. All his characters live and breathe, dead or alive, awake or asleep. It's a measure of his stature as a writer that you never notice his presence at all. You don't even know he's there, an amazing feat in any genre and one that left me gasping in delight when, in "My Other Life," I suddenly found myself right here, right now, in Burlington, Vermont, named as a place, with the campus on the green, the high school I attended, the lake that either does or doesn't freeze over in the winter, and a woman who lies -- tells tales -- all the time, not compulsively, but consciously, drawing her strength and her character itself from the stories other people weave around her. And when she has a near-death experience in a car wreck, moreover, she remains exactly the same. What? When? Why not?