Literary awards please almost no one. As William Gass famously complained, “any award giving outfit is doomed to make mistakes and pass the masters by in silence.” Each year, nominees are announced and each year readers and critics love to grumble. The 2004 National Book Award Nominees for fiction, however, inspired a level of grousing rarely seen in the last decade.
Each nominee for the shortlist was a woman, and each woman lived in New York City. Immediately, both the mainstream press and the literary blogosphere started throwing about terms: Elitist. Insular. Sameness. The New York Times gleefully reported that none of the women nominated had sold more than 2,000 copies of their books and quoted the literary editor of The Atlantic as saying, “I thought this was a really weak year for fiction, but I still wouldn’t have guessed that any of these would have been strong contenders.” Major newspapers that had not reviewed the books attempted one-fell-swoop pieces in which they treated the five disparate works as some sort of literary quintet, complete with facile pronouncements about their collective shortcomings. Chairman of the judges panel Rick Moody took a good deal of criticism for imposing his aesthetic with too heavy a hand. Caryn James of the Times searched (and claimed to find) common links between all the nominees, writing: “all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.”
Of course, this was a stretch. Five books by five women from the same city of eight million souls do not make for a uniform aesthetic. Anyone who reads one sentence written by 2004 nominee Christine Schutt, a former Gordon Lish acolyte known for her attention to the sonics of language, repetition, and rhythm as well as unusual and stunning verb choice will immediately see the folly of James’ claim. Joan Silber, another one of the five nominees has a strikingly different prose style, a much more straightforward and unadorned mode that could not be further from Schutt.
Lost in all the befuddlement about these relative unknowns and their supposed similarities were the actual merits of the books nominated. Among the crop of nominees was Joan Silber, nominated that year for her “ring of stories,” Ideas of Heaven, a work that explores the long-term impact that a single choice can have on a life. In every chapter/story, a Silber character is faced with a decision that takes decades to reveal its true repercussions, and often the actual impact of this decision will lie unrealized, producing subtle and destructive consequences for the rest of the character’s life. Whether Silber characters inhabit 16th century Italy or contemporary America, all of them are similarly preoccupied when it comes to life-choices and whether the passage of time allows for any sort of lesson at all when it comes to reflecting on the lives they have chosen (or been forced) to live.
In both Ideas of Heaven and her 2008 work, Size of the World, Silber utilizes nearly identical structures to portray the universality of this condition. Regardless of time period, Silber employs strikingly similar narrative voices for all of her characters, with few allowances for age or gender. In the same way that Silber’s characters from different countries and time periods have nearly identical emotional concerns, the consistency of voice in Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World is yet another Silber technique employed to demonstrate the shared humanity of these disparate characters in the most varied of circumstances.
What, you might wonder, is the “ring of stories” referred to in Ideas of Heaven? How is the ring related to the linked short story, the novel-in-stories, and the plain old-fashioned novel? Though there is no sport more boring and useless than literary classification, when Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is paired with Size of the World, one can see how little this question matters. (Even the author may not be the most authoritative in this case. In an interview with The Millions, Silber herself calls Ideas of Heaven “a hybrid between the novel and linked stories” and refers to the structure of Size of the World as simply, “this form.”) Billed on the front as “a novel,” Size of the World utilizes almost the exact same structure as Ideas of Heaven, the “ring of stories.” In both works, Silber has pioneered a distinct form, a crowd-told tale of multiple first person narrators, each chapter building on the next, but with each narrator’s story containing a dramatic structure traditionally associated with short fiction. In fact, chapters from both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World were published in journals and anthologies as standalone short stories. However, the Silber-applied “ring” in question likely refers to the fact that as the reader progresses through the work, the newer stories alter understanding of the earlier stories, until by the very end they have eventually circled back and all affected each other.
Silber utilizes passage of time like few of her contemporaries. Most interesting is Silber’s usage of what she herself calls, “long time.” In each story or chapter in Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven, decades pass, often in one sentence. “We went through all our savings, such as they were, in those five years in Ohio,” from Ideas of Heaven, or “In the third year we were together, the band had such a long dry spell that Randy got side work with a friend’s combo that did weddings and bar mitzvahs,” from Size of the World. But Silber’s “long time” is not merely about summary and exposition.
Silber herself has laid out the blueprint for how what exactly “long-time” is and how she accomplishes it in her craft book, The Art of Time in Fiction. Though ostensibly an exploration of how authors manage and explore time in their work, Silber glides over “classic time”, “slowed time” and others to get to the passage of time she clearly finds most engaging: long time.
The most consistent Silber technique in long time is to utilize habitual action as though it were a single event. Examples abound in every chapter or story in both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World as well as many of Silber’s earlier short stories. In Size of the World, Corrina, who eventually spends six years in what is then Siam, narrates her gradual comfort with the land around her:
My walks got longer, along the roads going inland, with paddies and forest on either side. Often I wanted to bring back a flower or a leafy stalk, but the stem were too fleshy to break, and I had a rational fear of sticking my hand in the foliage. I knew about snakes.
Silber discusses the benefits of this method in The Art of Time in Fiction, naming Flaubert and Chekhov as masters of this technique and claiming that “even in a story that leaps over long spans of time,” such a move allows for “the intimacy of the close gaze.”
Though other contemporary authors often deal with extended periods of time, few do so in the manner of Silber. Alice Munro, for instance, also often chronicles decades in the lives of her characters. Munro, however, utilizes shifting perspectives and frequently jumps forwards or backwards in time. Though Silber often credits Munro as a major influence, Silber’s work is much more constrained. Once a Silber character begins narrating a chapter or story, you can be sure that she will remain the sole narrator. In Munro, this is far less likely. Additionally, Munro is much more likely to experiment with tense, with stories completely told in present tense, (“Walker Brothers Cowboy”) or alternating between past and present (“Accident”). Silber characters all narrate their past from a usually undetermined later period in life. Where for Munro, time may be elastic, for Silber, time is guaranteed to be a linear progression that is difficult to make sense of. Though sole incidents often deeply affect Silber and Munro characters for the rest of their lives, the two authors differ in their illustrations of these effects. Unlike in Munro stories, a Silber character may think about the past, but they will never do it in scene.
Though the first person narrators who populate Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven are of distinct genders, nationalities, time periods, and generations, Silber uses the same technique of long time in each of the stories/chapters. Silber seems to utilize the long form in order to allow the weight of an action to fully inhabit its impact on the character. That is, time passes in Silber stories so the reader can fully understand the effect a seemingly unimportant decision or unforeseeable event (a car crash, a hurricane) can have on the rest of a character’s life. To truly demonstrate the impact of these events and how they change the character(s) in question, a good deal of time must pass.
Unlike Alice Munro and other contemporary authors, Silber rarely withholds information. Before a reader begins a story/chapter in Size of the World, a heading makes the reader aware of the narrator’s name, as well as an encompassing emotion that will be present in the story (envy, lust, paradise, loyalty, etc). In addition to her titles, Silber’s beginnings ground the reader immediately. For example, “Paradise” from Size of the World, begins as follows: “We moved to Florida in 1924, just as the land boom was taking off. We were not a young family—I was already twenty-one and my parents were in their forties and fifties.”
With assistance from the title, we already know from the first two sentences that our narrator’s name is Corrina, as well as her age, the time period, and geographic location.
A consistent Silber sub-theme within her explorations of time and its effects is uprootedness and migration. As time passes, Silber characters tend to repeat both the process of falling in love with a new place and being upended and wishing one was back in the place that was once unfriendly. This pattern is a constant in Size of the World as well as Ideas of Heaven. Even when Silber characters are unhappy with the geographic location in which they find themselves, they rarely find the place overwhelming for very long. If they do, they soon—via Silber’s habitual time rendered as scene—become acclimated in several paragraphs that may span years.
This is not to say that Silber characters are always happy where they are. Quite often, they would simply rather be elsewhere, or are visitors in the place that they call home. It is only the passage of time that dulls their sense of dislocation. Silber’s Annunziata, in Size of the World, uprooted from Sicily: “I didn’t really want to get better at knowing Hoboken, things—deep in my heart they didn’t interest me—but I learned them, inch by inch, in spite of myself.”
For Silber, the decades passing allow the reader to recognize the long-term impact of decisions on the characters. In her project of exploring the devastating or healing effects of time, Silber has created a rare formula, exploring very large questions through the tiniest and most specific of lives.