Monday, August 24, 2009

The Novella

It is neither particularly long nor is it notably short, its size intruding into your awareness after you have finished it.  By then, the impact of it has extracted envy from you with the deft skill of a pickpocket filching your wallet.  You are scarcely aware it is there, until it no longer is there but rather a ghostly presence, a reminder of times you slept alone in a bed you had recently shared with another.

They seem to come from a different place than their longer or shorter brothers and sisters, their inspiration more solidly steeped in whim or the mystical integrity of pure length than of matrix.  Were you to have written one and spoken of it by generic name rather than title, the expressions on the faces of those to whom you confessed your deed would instantly convince you of your sin in calling it thus.  "Why would you call it that?" as though you'd used some harsh racial epithet.  It is, in its similar way, not spoken of in the same hushed tones as a novel, which term slips liquidly through the lips like a drop of single-malt liquor.  And were you to say short story, you could easily be greeted with the stern judgement of reserve, the understood nod of sympathy sometimes afforded those who adopt children because they cannot have their own.  You wrote a short story because you could not write a nov-el.

Why would you want to write a novella?  (Why, you wonder, did John Steinbeck want to write Of Mice and Men, or Philip Roth Good-bye Columbus?)  Isn't a novella the literary equivalent of a premature baby?  Or the embarrassment set loose when a dark-skinned child appears within a sparkling white family?

You imagine two copyeditors at coffee break, wondering if Bartelby, the Scrivener is rendered in quotes or italic.  And of course that mischievous Truman Capote knew all along the fuss he'd set loose with Breakfast at Tiffany's, but wasn't he a bit--hostile?  Did James M. Cain intend The Postman Always Rings Twice to be a real book, then run out of gas?  Didn't he forego the obligatory sex scene between Frank and Cora so that he could simply have Frank, as narrator, say, "I parked the car by a clump of trees and we did plenty."?

Well, Faulkner was different, the critics would say; The Bear wasn't a novella; it was a short story that he lengthened so as not to call attention to it.  And what of The Old Man and the Sea?  Or that other American Nobel laureate, Bellow something-or-other? Seize the Day, wasn't it?  An afternoon's work.

Learning experiences, perhaps.  Yes?  Guided Tours of Hell was Francine Prose, working her way into the real thing, and Nathaniel West got himself tied up with Hollywood worse even than Fitzgerald.  No wonder Miss Lonelyhearts was so short.

But then there is Jim Harrison, who writes novellas as though they were messages from Heaven, and these are only American writers of the novella, there is Asia and there is Europe, and there is that mysterious continent of Incas and llamas and a river named January, and a country named after silver...

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