Reviewed: We're Flying By Peter Stamm Translated by Michael Hoffman Publish by Granta
Does size matter?
Think ‘literary take’ on that ever-burning question and what comes to mind..? Probably pages and word count. Put another way, can a short story ever carry the same payload as a novel? (For those who see it as a lesser form, do read ZZ Packer – Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Junot Diaz – Drown, Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, or Phil Klay – Redeployment). Now moving beyond the obvious, here’s a more oblique, but more interesting spin on the same question:
Does fiction need to be epic, to be epic?
Without war, blood or something ‘big’ around which high-drama can turn, can a story pack a serious punch? There are many ways to address the point – some long, others short, alas none definitive – but let’s just remind ourselves that Arundhati Roy’s 1997 debut, The God of Small Things, (which is about, well… ‘small things’), won the Booker Prize.
Very much in the same vein, We’re Flying, a collection of short stories by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm, is a meditation on ordinary lives. It exposes the emotional detritus that accumulates when love goes unrequited, when the winter of old age awaits, when alpha males hit their limitations. Each short delves into an intensely human situation, and examines the ebb and flow of humors under the skin’s surface. And indeed, the unpicking of minutiae is lovingly handled. Structurally too, these pieces are neat and enticing: posing questions, holding back on answers; encouraging the reader on to witness secrets being revealed.
Individually these stories interest but the whole is far less than the sum of parts. Scene-setting aside, they are remarkably similar: in terms of the arc that they traverse, the gear in which they move forward, the timbre they strike. Story after story, the same solemn notes are hit. Indeed a melancholy pall hangs over the collection as a whole, making continuous reading difficult. Instead of “We’re Flying”, it soon begins to feel like “we’re drowning”, as the monotone rattles ever louder, shouting down each piece’s atomic merits.
Consider this excerpt from the story that gives its name to the collection. Angelika, a young woman who works at a nursery, has brought one of her charges, Dominic, home – his city-slicker parents have got their wires crossed and forgotten to pick him up. In the following scene we meet Angelika’s boyfriend, Benno, as he enters her flat:
“They were still at table when Angelika heard the key in the door. Hello, Benno called from the hall. He appeared in the doorway of the living room, stopped, and said, Well, who do we have here? Angelika explained. Is he going to sleep in our bed? Benno asked with a grin. Because if he is, I can pack up and go home. Angelika said she was sure it was a misunderstanding. Misunderstanding? Said Benno. People leave their kids somewhere and it’s a misunderstanding? He sat down with them at the table. Dominic stared at him, and Benno stared back, with the same look of astonishment. Perhaps they flew away, he said. Do you think your parents could have flown away? He flapped his arms like a bird. Dominic said nothing, and Benno asked if there was anything left to eat. I thought you would have eaten already. Not really, said Benno. Angelika said she could make him some spaghetti. Do you want some more? She asked Dominic. He nodded.
When she brought the spaghetti into the living room ten minutes later, Benno and Dominic were sitting on two sofa cushions on the floor. Dominic was sitting behind Benno and had his arms around his waist. Benno leaned his upper body forward and to the side and back, and was making droning sounds. Dominic was laughing wildly and copying his movements. We’re flying, said Benno.”
It’s a lovely scene and the idea behind the story — a sort of posh take on a latchkey-kid — is certainly interesting. Furthermore the characterisation is excellent: through dialogue and play we see Benno for the affable joker that he is. The only flaw — the ‘flatness’ of the excerpt — is hardly noticeable, as it is so short. However when that same pace, tone, mood and feel are rigidly uniform throughout the story — indeed from first story to last story — one’s interest eventually flatlines.
So from a literary perspective, does size matter? The answer is ‘No’ – both in terms of word count and being ‘epic’. Short fiction is just as capable of delivering complexity, drama and everything that a novel does. And moreover, stories do not have to be ‘grande’ to leave a mark; to detonate on the reader. Just as Stamm has attempted, a writer can dig deep within a confined locus and unearth gems. But a collection wherein successive stories wade through the same ennui and follow the same trajectory, soon becomes dull. With no shot of adrenaline and no rush of blood, the collection becomes almost monochrome: Five Shades of Grey.
Tamim Sadikali designs software for hedge funds by day, runs after his kids in the evening and writes fiction during the dead hours. His first novel, Dear Infidel, is a story about'...love, hate, longing and sexual dysfunction, all sifted through the war on terror...' He blogs about satellite subjects and rants on Twitter.