December 2004

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

An Introduction

These days, as in the second half of the nineteenth century, most novels seem to come in one size only: doorstop size. As wonderful as these assorted triple-deckers might be, they are often simply too long. There aren’t that many stories that can’t be told extremely well at around 250 pages, and there are very few that really need 500 or 600 or 900 pages to do them justice.

The Australian novelist Peter Goldsworthy often says that he also writes poetry because only a poem can be perfect. Every single word can be carefully chosen and weighed, so that there is no better way of saying what the poem says. With anything on the scale of a story, or a novel, the sheer size of the thing means that it can never be perfect. But with some short stories, and also some novellas or short novels, their compactness and conciseness mean that everything that has been included has needed to prove its importance; they are like refined diamonds. Animal Farm would be a lesser book if it were longer. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde carries a lot of its nasty kick because of its savage brevity.

I also feel that there is a second important argument in favour of the short novel. Unless you have no need to eat or work or sleep or interact with other human beings, it is simply impossible to sit down and read most novels in one go. They are fragmented into different pieces over the hours or days, and each time you lose some momentum. With a short novel you can take in a whole story, and a whole world, in one satisfying hit.

Having said all that, what are the best short novels? This column will attempt to act as a guide to some of them, drawing examples from across time, space and genre boundaries. Some of these books are great introductions to their writers, while others are bizarre aberrations, but all of them are worth a little of your time.

A good place to begin is with Nicholson Baker, American novelist and staunch paper preservationist (see his polemical Double Fold, arguing against the destruction wrought on old books, magazines and newspapers by libraries determined to transfer them to microfilm). Baker is also weirdly famous because of Vox, a phone-sex novel which was dragged into the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky investigations. His first two books, however, are near-plotless miniatures of delightfully comic observation.

Room Temperature (1990): A man sits in a room feeding his infant daughter, and during this process launches into a dizzying series of free-associating memories and observations, almost entirely trivial and frequently hilarious. Nothing much actually happens, but that, of course, is the point of this book.

The Mezzanine (1988): Similar to Room Temperature, in that it features the thoughts and observations of a man tying his shoelaces on his lunch break. Thoroughly enjoyable, though best not read immediately before or after its predecessor.

Any who enjoy these two books are also advised to get hold of the beautiful and playful Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino.

An entirely different sort of writer is J. G. Ballard, whose worldview seems bleak and often shocking, but also unique and always intriguing; there is little that he has done that could have been written by anyone else. Empty swimming pools, decadent sensualists, automatic weapons and automotive wreckage flavor his novels and short stories.

The Drowned World (1962): Ballard’s first novel, and one of his more prophetic works of science-fiction, set in the vivid jungles and swamps of greenhouse-effect-drowned England. A few loners and eccentrics remain behind after most of the population has fled north. These characters use research work or military action as an excuse to stay, their behaviour slowly turning reptilian to cope with their changed environment. Slow-moving but very involving, it ends with a hallucinatory journey towards the boiling equator in search of a missing man.

Running Wild (1988): This novella is typical of Ballard’s later output. The science-fictional elements are less overt, and the focus is on an enclosed near-future community of the very wealthy, the sort of people whose money has lifted them beyond any real consideration of conscience or ethics, and where all that matters is politeness. Told in the form of a forensic investigation, Running Wild details a mass-murder committed by a group of children. Ballard’s rich but near-sociopathically cold prose shines.

For something completely different again, you couldn’t go much further out than William Beckford, an 18th-century English MP who devoted most of his money and wealth to building the bizarre Fonthill Abbey, a structurally unsound Gothic castle of his own design, which he was then forced to sell because of financial difficulties.

Vathek (1786): A genuinely deranged story, Vathek tells the tale of a journey undertaken by the savage Caliph Vathek across a stylised European idea of ancient Arabia. Vathek and his scheming mother, in search of power and magical relics, set out after making a deal with an Indian trickster at the cost of the lives of fifty young children. Encounters with seductresses and magical villains punctuate their travels, as well as a number of dwarfs, for whom Beckford had an inordinate interest. Fascinating, imaginative, undisciplined and often sardonically funny.

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From this almost random sampling of the B shelves we will move on, in coming months, to more of literature’s best miniatures.