The only thing harder than writing a fully realized short story is turning a collection of them into a fully realized novel. Tim O’Brien pulled it off in The Things They Carried. So did Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kittredge. More often, though, the novel-in-stories conceit seems more a marketing gimmick to get around admitting the book is simply a collection of stories organized around a theme or a group of characters. At best, you get Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which the sum of the (often brilliant) parts add up to more than the (somewhat nebulous) whole. At worst, you get a novel full of holes.
Dylan Landis’s new novel-in-stories Rainey Royal starts off with a brace of taut, aching stories about a troubled young girl in 1970s New York City raising herself in a world of crazy adults. These early stories are set in a sprawling five-story townhouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village ruled by Rainey’s jazz-musician father, Howard Royal, and his creepy sidekick, Gordy Vine, who likes to come into Rainey’s bedroom and stroke her hair while she pretends to sleep. Rainey is 14 and gorgeous, and her mother has departed for an ashram in Colorado, never to return.
Readers of Landis’s first story collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, will remember Rainey as the queen-bee mean girl who makes school life miserable for Leah Levinson, the insecure, obsessive-compulsive girl who is the focus of many of the stories in that book. Rainey’s riveting mix of cruelty and neediness stole the show every time she appeared in Normal People, so it makes sense that when Landis returned to the world of that earlier book, she would turn the spotlight on Rainey.
The Rainey we meet in this volume’s first story, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire,” remains as feisty and beautiful as she was in the earlier collection, but now she’s the victim, not the aggressor. In a few deft scenes, Landis creates a vivid fictive universe in which Rainey’s jazz-star father, surrounded by dazzled young groupies and espousing a supercilious brand of hippie-era permissiveness, allows his daughter to be molested repeatedly under his own roof.
In Landis’s capable hands, every battle, every transgression is minutely observed. We are only five pages into the first story when Rainey, asked to sit down for a talk with Howard and Gordy after walking home from the library in the rain, makes her first mistake, telling her father, “I’m soaking wet.” “She regrets this immediately,” Landis writes. “Gordy’s attention, like a draft from a threshold, wafts toward her. He doesn’t even have to raise his head.” From here on, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire” is a grim battle for territory, with Gordy, aided by Rainey’s indulgent father, waging a quiet war of attrition for access to Rainey’s body, and Rainey using every scrap of her wit and beauty to make her body her own — even as she covets the attention of the two men who are the closest thing to parents in her life. In later stories, this battle shifts to possession of the house itself, which, it turns out, belongs to Rainey’s grandmother, who has allowed Howard to hold it for Rainey in trust until she turns 25.
There are the makings of an explosive novel here, but Landis, having set the bomb in place and struck the match, declines to light the fuse. The third story in the collection, “Trust,” turns on a wildly implausible robbery, in which Rainey and her best friend Tina take Howard’s gun and stick up a couple walking through their West Village neighborhood. The story is beautifully written, all sharp edges and jazzy rhythms, and one can see how it would work as a self-contained short story (indeed, “Trust” was first published in Tin House and won an O. Henry Award).
But as a chapter in a novel, it makes no real sense. Here these two teenage girls, making only the most amateurish attempts to disguise themselves, rob and terrorize a couple at gunpoint in broad daylight in their own neighborhood — and nothing happens? No police investigation? No concern about their victims recognizing them on the street? No desire to pull off a similar crime? Just nothing. Landis works a few oblique references to the robbery into later stories, but for the most part, it’s as if Rainey and Tina have temporarily stepped into some parallel universe in which their actions have no repercussions on the rest of their lives.
This keeps happening, the quick-hit demands of short fiction overtaking the deeper, more sustained pleasures of the novel form. As Rainey and her school friends grow older, Landis turns away from the central battleground that makes the opening pages so riveting, adding new characters and plotlines and switching perspectives from one character to another. A few of these later stories are frankly puzzling. In “Fly or Die,” uptight Leah is hijacked at a party by mysterious woman named Zola, who leads her to a strip club, where Leah, apparently, is being groomed to go onstage. My note at the end of this story was succinct: “WTF?”
At no point in this does Landis lose her native gift for sentences. A former journalist whose husband happens to be New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, Landis is, line by line, one of the smartest and most exacting prose stylists we have. She is especially good on the human body. The withered hand of Rainey’s grandmother, Lala, “creeps back to Lala’s hand like a daddy longlegs.” Just a few pages later, Radmila, a young Yugoslav flautist whom Rainey discovers naked in her father’s bed “holds the sheet to the butter knives that are her collarbones.”
Landis also nails the complex inner tectonics of girlhood friendship and rivalry. In one early scene, as Rainey and Tina are toying with how to respond to the repulsive attraction Gordy holds for young girls like them, Tina turns her back on Rainey to reach for a bag of sugar. “Her top rides up,” Landis writes of Tina, “revealing an indented waist that Rainey appreciates because it is necessary that they both be sexy, but revealing, also, a little sash of fat, which Rainey relishes because it is necessary that only one of them have a flawless body.”
Writing this good, especially when powered by a snappy premise, can make for an electric 20-page short story. A novel, to go the distance, also needs a sustaining narrative to carry the reader through. Rainey Royal has the potential for that narrative drive in Rainey’s struggle to take back her body from the men in her life who want to own it, but as the book veers ever further away from the battle over territory in Rainey’s West 10th Avenue townhouse, the drama of the opening stories gradually dissipates until the novel begins to seem more marked by its elisions than by what is on the page.