May 24th, 2010

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In Praise of the Short Novel

"Americans like their women thin and their novels fat." -- Stephen King

And yet, so much interesting work is done in the novella/short novel format.

I've been perusing quite a few samples of this mode lately, including "Goodbye, Columbus" by Phillip Roth, "The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen, Devil's Marionette by Maurice Broaddus, The God Engines by John Scalzi, The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, and Blockade Billy by Stephen King . . .

Not all of these are completely successful, but all of them offer plenty of surprises and wonderful material in a length that perfectly suits the stories they tell. Little fat, but plenty of experimentation. After reviewing so many template novels (90,000 words on average) for www.HorrorReader.com, it's refreshing to find a length that 1) works, 2) does not shirk from authorial playfulness, and 3) does not lend itself easily to the same-old, same-old style of storytelling.

Of course, the author selection may add more than a little to this.

"Goodbye, Columbus" is a story of a lower class Jewish guy falling for an upper class Jewish girl, and all the difficulties that come about. It shares themes with Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby (another lovely, short novel that I haven't read in years), but it has one thing to its credit that Fitzgerald never really succeeds in: a sense of humor. A laugh, here and there, make the other emotions really stand out and Roth's tale has no shortage of laughter. And misery. And thoughtful digressions.

"The Great God Pan" is Arthur Machen's foray into a Victorian style erotic horror story. A woman is subjected to a radical surgery to allow her to pierce the veil and look upon the Great God Pan, and what results is madness and a terrifying legacy. While my synopsis may paint the tale as cliched (it's not, it established the elements which have become cliched), the piece is surprisingly fresh. Told in disjointed fashion about the men this woman (and her offspring) affect. It has fingers in everything from Lovecraft's "Dunwich Horror" to Straub's Ghost Story. It is, in point of fact a killer of a horror tale.

Devil's Marionette recounts a sort-of-ghost-story involving the all black cast and crew of a hit television series. Plot plays a secondary role to the characters, and what a cast of characters they are! There is raw and real emotion on display here--much of it aimed at bigots, and who does not like hating on prejudiced asshats???--and while the story itself is not particularly clear (I cannot easily relate just what the order of events in this book are supposed to be), the well drawn characters and intense emotions are easily on par with the best of Ellison's fiction.

The God Engines is apparently a horse of a different color for author Scalzi. I wouldn't know, I've yet to read any of his novels. Here we have a science fantasy story with some wonderful ideas: star craft powered by imprisoned gods, a society erected around the one triumphant God, and a lone vessel on a secret mission to a planet that has been removed from notice. It's a story about faith (not really religion) and charity and truth, all wrapped up in a dark aesthetic I truly enjoyed. The title apparently shouts out to Jack McDevitt, the storyline echoes Clark Ashton Smith's sf, as well as George R. R. Martin's "Nightfliers", and some of Philip Dick's work (a smackeral of The Maze of Death) . . . There's plenty going on, and a plethora of details suggesting a larger world (enough to make me curious to see another short novel set here or, gasp, possibly something longer).

The Final Solution is a modest story of detection, in which a Former Great Detective investigates a mystery surrounding a mute boy and his parrot. An already charming tale is made an absolute delight by Chabon's playful style. This is the first novel I've read by the author, and it won't be the last.

Blockade Billy is Stephen King's take on a baseball story. It's a first person recounting of a killer season for the Jersey Titans, which has since been struck from the records. The problems started when the team found themselves in need of a catcher, and a curious fellow named William Blakely arrived to fill the gap. Blockade Billy, as he would be called, had his own little dark secret. This short novel hearkens to King's other short novel, The Colorado Kid in that the narrator's voice is damn near perfect. Unlike The Colorado Kid, this brief novel has a definite ending (which should please some readers).


What about you, friends? Are there any short novels that stand out for you? Or do you go for the longer is better model?