Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.
Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.
As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.
As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.
And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.
This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.
Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.
With year nearly half over, it’s time once again to look ahead at books that will be arriving in the coming months. 2007 was very much a front-loaded year in terms of big-name literary releases with heavyweights like Delillo, McEwan, Murakami, Lethem, and Chabon all dropping new titles early in the year. The second half of 2007, while it doesn’t have as many headline grabbers (excluding Harry Potter, of course), does have a number of interesting books on offer.September: I’ve already written about the Junot Diaz book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here’s what I said “The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about it in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.” Since then, the New Yorker has published another excerpt from the book, in the June 11 & 18 Summer Fiction issue, but the story isn’t available online.Suite Francaise, a posthumously published work by a Russian-born, French novelist who died in the Holocaust was a surprise bestseller in 2006. Though Irene Nemirovsky was a celebrated writer in the 1930s, she had been largely unknown to today’s readers. Now, however, her work is returning to the spotlight. Like Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood was written during the early years of the war, but only published decades later. Unlike Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood does not center on the war, instead “it dwells on intense, often repressed emotional conflict set against bucolic country life,” according to the International Herald Tribune where more about the book and Nemirovsky can be found.Songs Without Words is Ann Packer’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. Based on some reports from BEA, the book has generated some buzz, but I haven’t seen any early reviews. Publisher Knopf describes the book as a chronicle of a friendship between two women that is shaken when an “adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters” and “the fault lines in the women’s friendship are revealed.” An excerpt from the book is available, too.Denis Johnson has a hefty new tome (600+ pgs) on the way. As Garth pointed out to me when he snagged a galley of the book at BEA, Tree of Smoke has garnered some serious praise from FSG head Jonathan Galassi. His letter from the front of the galley says: “The novel you’re holding is Denis Johnson’s finest work, I believe, and one of the very best books we have ever had the honor to publish. Tree of Smoke has haunted me in the sense that I’ve thought about it and dreamed about it since I finished reading it, and the impression it left has only deepened over time. I think it is a great book, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.” (via SoT)Richard Russo is taking something of a departure from his usual terrain in upstate New York with his new novel Bridge of Sighs. The book’s protagonist Louis Charles “Lucy” Lynch hales from upstate Thomaston, but the book’s action takes place partly in Venice where Lucy goes with his wife to find a childhood friend. From the sound of it, Russo stays true to the themes and tone of his past books but broadens the geography a bit.October: Ann Patchett, author of big seller Bel Canto has a new book coming out called Run. Patchett recently told Amazon the book is “about a man who is the former mayor of Boston, who has three sons and who has political ambitions for his sons that perhaps one of them would go on to be president, and he pushes them in that direction.” Or if you want a snappier blurb: “Joe Kennedy meets The Brothers Karamazov,” which sounds more than a little intriguing. Curious readers can listen to Patchett reading from the book courtesy WGBH Boston.In my early days as a bookseller, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was one of the first bestsellers I encountered from that side of the retail equation. I came to understand that this meant having a copy of the book within reach at all times since requests for it came unabated. At one point I even had the book’s ISBN memorized from ringing it up so frequently. Sebold and her publisher will undoubtedly be hoping for similar success with her follow-up novel The Almost Moon. USA Today recently ratcheted up the hype by revealing the book’s first sentence: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”Tom Perotta’s last book, Little Children got noticed both because of good reviews and because Pepperidge Farm made publisher St. Martin’s take its goldfish crackers off the cover (they were replaced by chocolate chip cookies). Perrotta’s new book, The Abstinence Teacher depicts no food whatsoever on the cover. The book treads Perrotta’s usual turf: the raw underbelly of suburbia. Following in the footsteps of Election, another Perrotta novel, a film version of The Abstinence Teacher is said to be in the works.Perhaps the “biggest” book yet to come out during the second half of this year, though, will be Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. Billed as the final Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost follows Zuckerman back to New York where he is seeing a doctor but is waylaid when chance encounters stir things up in the way things get stirred up in Roth novels. An early look from PW is less than impressed – “the plot is contrived.” A random blogger offers a different opinion. With the publication date several months away, the jury is still out.The above are the forthcoming books that have caught my eye, but I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones. Tell us about them in the comments.