An antiquarian is a fancy word for a second-hand bookstore. There are many antiquarians in the Old World capitals of Paris, London, and Amsterdam. Sometimes they’re little more than places for backpackers to offload their battered copy of Dan Brown’s latest. The better antiquarians offer first editions, leather bound collectibles, and hand-inked maps of empire.
My antiquarian sits on the edge of Amsterdam’s red light district. It has an English language section that is surprisingly literary. There, I find an anthology entitled Object Lessons: the Paris Review presents The Art of the Short Story.
How fortunate for me! I am working on a DIY study of the short story. Object Lessons consists of twenty stories originally published in The Paris Review, as selected by twenty “masters of the genre,” each of whom has added a note to explain their selection. According to the editors of Object Lessons, its purpose is not to serve as a greatest hits anthology.
Our hope is that this collection will be useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique. Most of all, it is intended for readers who are not (or are no longer) in the habit of reading short stories. We hope these object lessons will remind them how varied the form can be, how vital it remains, and how much pleasure it can give.Object Lessons: the Paris Review presents The Art of the Short Story, edited by Loren Stein and Sadie Stein (Random House 2012)
Ever since I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, I’ve been meaning to read Joy Williams. Her story “Dimmer” is the first one up in Object Lessons. Published in The Paris Review, Issue 48 in 1969, “Dimmer” is the tale of the unloved drifter Mal Vester. It opens like this:
Mal Vester had a pa who died in the Australian desert after drinking all the water from the radiator of his Land Rover. His momma had died just like the coroner said she had, even though he had lost the newspaper clipping that would have proved it. Not lost exactly. He had folded up the story and put it in the pocket of his jeans for one year and one half straight because they were the only pants he had and the paper had turned from print into lint and then into the pocket itself and then the jeans had become as thin and as grey as the egg skins his momma had put over his boils when he was little.“Dimmer” by Joy Williams in Object Lessons
This 36 page doozy of a tale contrasts with a 1000 word classic by another Prose favorite, Denis Johnson. His short story is narrated by a man known as Fuckhead who witnesses a car crash while hitchhiking (and high). This story manages to
leave out the maximum in terms of plot, setting, characterization, and authorial explanation while finding a voice whose brokenness is the reason behind the narrative deprivation, and therefore a kind of explanation itself. […] The story hasn’t told you about an experience so much as made that experience your own.Jeffrey Eugenides on Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” in Object Lessons
The Johnson story originally appeared in The Paris Review in 1989 and later in the short story collection entitled Jesus’ Son. It occurs to me that the only way I could find Johnson’s works is to browse the shelves of an antiquarian.
While it’s nice to be able to tick off ago-old items from my to-be-read list, it’s even better to discover new writers. New to me, I should add. Published in The Paris Review, Issue 145 in 1997, Steven Millhauser offers a coming-of-age story that is so lyrical, so melancholic, you’re hip-deep in his world before you know it.
In the long summers of my childhood, games flared up suddenly, burned to a brightness, and vanished forever. The summers were so long that they gradually grew longer than the whole year, they stretched out slowly beyond the edges of our lives, but at every moment of their vastness they were drawing to an end, for that’s what summers mostly did: they taunted us with endings, marched always into the long shadow thrown backward by the end of vacation.“Flying Carpet” by Steven Millhauser in Object Lessons
This use of time ⏤ to lengthen, circle back, pause at the moment before the dice fall as they must ⏤ seems to me to be the critical distinction between a novel and a short story. It’s not the scope of the tale. The stories in Object Lessons prove that an entire lifetime in a single short story, for example, in “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin. This story was chosen by Lorrie Moore who said in her note:
There is a kind of long, fate-obsessed story of which Ethan Canin has become an American master. His accomplished handling of time ⏤ sometimes seeming to take a life in its entirety, exploding then knitting it together slightly out of sequence to better reveal the true meaning of an experience ⏤ results in fictions of tremendous depth, wisdom, and architectural complexity.
If Object Lessons is meant to teach the young writer the art of the short story, then this not-so-young-anymore writer would suggest reading the Notes after you’ve digested the story. Often, I found the Notes to be unintelligible without being familiar with the plot line. Occasionally, the Notes contained plot spoilers. There are no exercises or writing prompts or didactic explanations. If you want to use Object Lessons as a primer on how to write a great short story, you’ll just have to read them all, over and over.
For a collection published ten years ago of stories, some of which first appeared in the last century, Object Lessons has withstood the test of time. So many of the authors published by The Paris Review have gone on to become acknowledged masters of the short story. Think Donald Barthelme, James Salter, and Lydia Davis, all of whom have work in Object Lessons. If the goal of The Paris Review was to re-ignite desire for the short story form, Object Lessons succeeds. I think I might need to take another trip to my local antiquarian.
9 Feb 2023 | Karen Kao