Monday, July 20, 2009

Fiction Mondays: The Book of Other People

I've been reading "The Book of Other People," the anthology Zadie Smith edited as a fundraiser for the 826 Foundation. It features stories by Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, ZZ Packer, Edwidge Danticat, and a bunch of British authors I am not familiar with. Some of their stories are really good, though, particulary one called "Frank." It's incredible what the writer accomplishes by avoiding saying some things--by making things implicit instead of explicit, the story becomes a kind of excercise in letting the reader know just enough. The stories range from very serious to kind of out-there (Dave Eggers' story, "Theo," is about mountains that are sleeping giants), so diving into each story, you don't have any expectations. I really like it.

I think, as a writer, that when you're given a simple prompt, it really lets your work go where it wants, and some of the writers in the anthology really take advantage of that. One, by Aleksander Hemon, is called "The Liar," and it's about Jesus, but it's not the kind of story about Jesus that you dread reading. As he walks to Golgotha, this version of Jesus says to a soldier, "I'm the son of God, you know." The soldier says, "And I'm Virgil." He's a human Jesus who can be mocked just like anyone else. Another story, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is an old grandmother talking to her grandson, and she wanders and says a lot of off-topic things that really illuminate who she is, and what their relationship is like. It's subtle, and funny.

I've been working on a very short story. Two, actually. Both 250 words, for Opium Magazine's "Bookmarks" contest. One is about a suicidal vaudevillian, and the other is about a small Polish village found behind the grocery store. I don't normally write things this short, so it's a challenge, getting to what I want to say in time. I kind of like it, though. I think it's the puzzle-and-scrabble part of my brain that I have to use to edit--what is the trick, here? What can I take out in order to make myself clearer in fewer words? It's a thought process I'm applying to longer works, too, and I think it's making my fiction a lot leaner. Lean is good, I think, as long as I don't overdo it.

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