I’ve noticed an interesting trend recently toward what seems to me to be the deliberate miscategorization of books. Specifically, an insistence on the part of some publishers that practically everything’s a novel. I understand the reasoning behind it—novels, the argument goes, are somewhat easier to sell than either novellas or short story collections, and all’s fair in love, war, and literary fiction sales strategies—but it still seems unfortunate to me.
There’s a good argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter what we call the work, so long as it’s good. I don’t entirely disagree, but all artforms thrive on diversity, and it seems to me that a diversity of form should be celebrated, not hidden. It troubles me a little to see diverse works given what seems to me to be an inaccurate label and sent out into the world in disguise.
The small press Flatmancrooked, for example, declared Emma Straub‘s recent Fly-Over State (a wonderful book, praised elsewhere on this site) a “composite novel” on the book’s Amazon page, which I found puzzling: partly because the book was published by Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint, the name of which suggests a certain publication mandate, and partly because the edition I read was composed of a shortish novella followed by a longish short story, for a grand total of 77 pages. (Incidentally, every time I type out “Fly-Over State” I suffer considerable indecision over whether or not I should be capitalizing the Over, but that’s neither here nor there.)
It’s difficult to define the precise lines between a novel, a novella, and a short story, but the main difference, setting considerations of structure aside for just a moment, is of course one of length. There’s no such thing as a 3,000-word novel or a 70,000-word short story. Novellas occupy a shifting gray area in the middle. There are other, increasingly archaic subcategories, but who wants to get bogged down in the fine distinctions between a novella and a novelette? Regardless, the novella is among my favorite forms, and it seems to me a pity that we can’t just call it what it is.
Steven Amsterdam‘s recent short story collection Things We Didn’t See Coming was, rumor has it, marketed as a novel in Australia, and here’s where the question of structure comes into play. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of Amsterdam’s book as a novel—the stories, each one a clearly-defined episode in a life lived out in a dystopian near-future, are too discrete; each one stands alone, with a beginning, a middle, an end. In other words, it seems to me that it’s a short story collection, although the lines between “short story collection” and “novel” can get awfully blurry sometimes—the stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming were much more linked than the two pieces in Fly-Over State, but not as interdependent as, say, the parts that comprise Jennifer Egan‘s spectacular A Visit From the Goon Squad, a work whose classification seems decidable by a coin toss: was that a novel, or a collection of tightly interwoven short stories? The book’s brilliant either way.
But then, of course, there are the books that are impossible to categorize at all, that slip through not only considerations of length and genre but through the gauze curtains that separate prose from poetry and poetry from stage plays, and the literary world is richer for them. Terese Svoboda‘s Pirate Talk or Mermalade declares itself a novel on the dustjacket, which seems a stretch given certain whitespace/page count considerations—because here’s the thing: can’t we just proudly declare a novella to be a novella, when the form’s so wonderful, when there aren’t enough words between the covers to call the work a novel and it’s far longer than a short story?—but I don’t want to get too bogged down here. It’s a fascinating book and the length is the least interesting thing about it.
Pirate Talk or Mermalade is billed as a novel in voices—meaning that the only text is dialogue—about a pair of unnamed brothers who grow up by the Atlantic Ocean, raised by one of the worst cooks in modern literature (“Makes a person want to go to sea, your soup”), in a town where the hanging of captured pirates is a frequent entertainment. It’s the early eighteenth century, and the older brother has been sent to sea.
The death of their domestically challenged Ma eventually drives the younger one to the ships as well, and their lives from that point until the day they’re stranded in the Arctic are a delirious blur of hangings, mutinies, piracy, lost limbs and storms from Nantucket to the Carribean to the Indian Ocean. There is cannibalism, a talking parrot, mermaids. I’m susceptible to books about the sea—my childhood memories include harassing sea cucumbers in tidal pools and conducting staring contests with seals—and this book had me from the opening:
I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath.
You have not. And not a live one.
I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I’m sixteen, after all.”
Dan Chaon calls Svoboda a true American original, and I believe he’s right. I’m enchanted, and yet in the end I find my reaction mixed. I think this book has some problems. There are moments when the action is unclear to say the least, and more seriously for a novel written entirely in voices, moments when it’s difficult to tell who’s talking. The brothers’ voices are very similar; at the openings of chapters, it’s often impossible to tell who’s speaking until someone says something to identify themselves, and then you have to perform that awkward hopscotching maneuver whereby you trace every second line of dialogue back to the beginning to figure out who said what. The issue could have been fixed quite easily by giving the brothers names.
But there are also any number of moments where the technical issues are entirely unimportant, because the prose is funny and astoundingly beautiful and the characters feel fully alive. This book is something entirely new: a novella that’s also a sort of poetry, a poetry that’s also almost a stageplay. Pirate Talk is a strange and nastily beautiful book, frustrating because it comes so close to greatness, and I’m left with what must seem a strange response: I can’t say that this book entirely succeeds, but I want to read everything Terese Svoboda has ever written. In any form, at any length.
In the impressionism of the work, the gorgeous unsteadiness of form—is this fiction, poetry, a stage play?—Pirate Talk reminded me a little of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, another novella in sheep’s clothing: Bolaño referred to it as a novel, but the volume weighs in at 78 pages and few of those pages are full. Here also is a sense of reading a new form, although the book’s thirty years old. Antwerp is an impossible little book, frustrating and fascinating. There is a campground, a crime, a red-haired girl involved with the drug trade. If there’s a plot, it’s well-hidden.
“The scorn I felt for so-called official literature was great,” Bolaño writes in the essay that precedes the book, and it shows. The book is composed of 56 numbered segments, some only a paragraph long. Antwerp was written in 1980, a time when a young Bolano was shifting his principal form from poetry to prose, and the transition between forms is incomplete. Some sections are slivers of narrative—“With instructions in an envelope, I left the city”—while others read more like prose poems. The first section begins:
The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The fronde. Necklace of tears. Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade—dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta, 1959. Everything looks worn.
There’s a dreamlike quality to both novellas. I’m left with impressions of mermaids and polar bears, detectives, seaside highways in the rain.