Old-Fashioned Linking

A couple of commenters on my post Sunday about short stories took up the topic of “linked” collections, and how publishers and readers might favor them because they have a “unity” of tone and (sometimes) plot. I’m fine with the structure when it works—in, say Vincent Lam‘s Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures or the linked sets of stories in Amy Bloom‘s Where the God of Love Hangs Out—less so when it’s hokum like Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge. But it’s worth remembering that the linked collection isn’t a new concept that publishers have whipped up in the past few years. Ernest Hemingway‘s posthumous 1972 collection, The Nick Adams Stories, has just been translated into Hebrew, giving Israeli writer Uzi Weil an opportunity to expound in Haaretz on the book, which he calls “the most elusive book and the simplest book I have ever read.” Weil’s prose gets a little humid, but this passage gets at why the linked collection works for him:

Between one story and another there is so much that is unsaid. That doesn’t need to be said. But the stories themselves sparkle in the light of truth, leaving you no choice but to fill in with your imagination, with your own heart and soul, what is unsaid. And this act of completion is what makes reading the Nick Adams stories so very, very different. Because it appears to be a novel about the life of a man, from childhood to adulthood. But unlike any novel ever written, it depicts the points before and after the “important points.” It doesn’t tell you what happened to Nick and his wife. You fill that in yourself. It’s like he’s saying: What does it matter, just what happened exactly? That’s what you call “the tyranny of the plot.” Forget “the plot.” Come, let me tell you about a certain moment in a hotel, a year after his love died.

It’s been so long since I’ve read any Hemingway—and I recall reading only a handful of the Nick Adams stories—that I can’t comment on how successfully he pulled any of that off. For what it’s worth, at the time it was published, the New York Times didn’t seem to think much of this linked-stories business. Richard R. Lingeman concluded his review by writing: “Nick Adams unites them in name only and the best of the stories stand alone, not as links in a chain. ‘The Nick Adams Stories’ neither add nor detract from Hemingway’s memory, and it is good to have a collection of the good ones, but this present arrangement does not create any new synergism.”

7 responses to “Old-Fashioned Linking

  1. This is especially interesting to me, in that I’ve just finished story #9 in the “Adventures of Hec McLean” series. Thanks very much. — James Guy Roberts, jamesguyroberts.com

  2. Harvey Freedenberg

    Two very effective recent linked collections are Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neil and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (although the latter’s publisher, no doubt for marketing reasons, calls it a novel).

  3. It wouldn’t be the first time an NYT reviewer was wrong. I read most of the Nick Adams stories when I was a teenager — not long after that collection came out — and they worked for me.
    Uzi Weil is right on target about the Nick Adams stories being about things that are left unsaid.

  4. I wonder when a collection containing cross-over characters stops being termed as “linked” and becomes a kind of episodic hybrid, (a novel with all the boring bits taken out, including perhaps the plot – a narrative sifted till only the real nuggets remain..)? I was reminded of the works of Bruno Schulz. Then again, when it’s that fabulous, who cares what the form is called!

  5. I’ve never read the Nick Adams collection, but I did recently read a few of the Nick Adams stories on their own, and I do think they gain quite a bit from being read together. Even if Hemingway never linked them in a collection, he did link them by re-using the name of the protagonist, and I don’t think that’s because Hemingway had trouble coming up with names. Clearly he wanted us to read these stories as incidents in one person’s life, and that fact really does change my understanding of the stories.

    Take, for example, “Big Two Hearted River”. It’s often used as an exemplar of Hemingway’s “iceberg theory”, in that the story seems to just be about a man going on an uneventful fishing trip, and everyone will tell you it’s really about shell-shock. How do they know that? They know because it’s made clear in the other stories. “Big Two-Hearted River” makes a lot more sense (to me) when read alongside “Now I Lay Me”, in which Nick explicitly mentions his experiences in the war, then fantasizes about going home to fish his old favorite haunts as a form of escape.

  6. Since you’re an expat, I’ll recommend two linked Chicago story collections to you: Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan, and Irene Zabytko’s When Luba Leaves Home.

  7. “In Our Time,” was the book you’re talking about, yes, Mark? I agree that the best stories in that collection stand alone… there is the strange, structural thing he’s also doing in that collection with the short vignettes, too, which I think he imagines as meaningful structure (ie, fragmentation of war, fragmentation of traditional narrative). But “In Our Time,” is first a collection of stories coming directly out of WWI and trying to face up to it. It is about the ‘unsaid’, if we really want to conflate Hemingway’s theory of the iceberg (meaning, his particular minimalism and his approach to craft), which is about ‘how’ the work functions, and his thematic intentions (or concern in particular with a young, disillusioned, damaged war veteran who is obviously much like the young Hemingway at least in terms of immediate situation).

    If we want to talk about a collection of stories that is ‘uneven’ in many, many ways (the ambition and success of individual stories), and which is also unified both in recurring narrators and a shared world and shared focus on a place and event, the book to speak of would be Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” I would hold that whatever it is in terms of ‘evenness’ or unity or ‘links’, it doesn’t try to use the cheap box of plot, or an ‘appearance’ of unity, or any extrinsic element or trick. It’s a story collection concerning a young Jewish Russian intellectual in the Polish campaign conducted by the Cossacks in WWI that also considers, from other narrative points of view and in unusual forms (letters, for example) the entirety of that war with a poetic intensity and unflinching examination of the violence and moral ambiguity of being in a war and being complicit in what happens in war. It is chaotic, morbid, unstructured, that it almost revels in the visceral and sexual, the terrible and irresolvable. What would a contemporary reviewer be likely to say– that it took indefensible liberties, that it was hard to find or follow a plot beyond the ‘progress’ of a war which seemed to go on for its own sake alone, that the primary narrator revealed too little and too much, that Babel’s treatment of the Cossacks was racist, that the sections from other points of view strained too much, that it was reproachably– uneven… probably they would say that though it appeared ‘unified’, it was no “Olive Kitteridge”. :-)

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