The Sky is a Well won Rose Metals Press‘s first short short chapbook contest. The book is beautifully produced: letter press cover and amazingly sharp typesetting. Claudia Smith, who lived in Seattle briefly, has published a whole bunch of stories in mostly online mags, including two issues I’ve also been in, The Mississippi Review and The Steel City Review.
I haven’t read a collection of realistic stories since Christine Schutt’s A Day, A Night, Another Say, Summer, that I’ve enjoyed this much. I think part of this is that Claudia Smith’s characters don’t live in a kind of tangential world. Schutt’s novel, Florida, for instance is set in decrepit mansion of a wealthy family. Or Edisto by Padgett Powell has a professor mother named The Duchess. I have a completely unconfirmed theory that fiction about working class people, no matter how well done, if anyone will pay any attention to it has to have some kind of off-kilter angle — fallen aristocrats, boot-leggers, drug fiends, etc. How to explain the obscurity of Well by Matthew McIntosh?
In one of the stories, a daughter receives fragments of a letter written on postcards from her father. The first card arrives, “I am in.” the letter itself when it is finally constructed isn’t as eloquent as the pieces. The father sends an envelope filled with petals. The narrator’s mother cries. “She looks at me with shiny eyes. That’s the way she cries, squinting so that her eyes don’t run.” The letter turns out be a sideways dig at the mother. The story ends with the daughter planning on looking at the solar eclipse.
In another story, Uncle Trip asks, “What is a symbol.” His niece says, “I can’t tell you, I explain. But, I know it when I see it.”
These are operating principles in the collection. These aren’t allegorical events, but observations of familiar objects written with unadorned, direct sentences that grow into stories as the narrator examines them.
The form of the short short, though, seems at odds with these stories. These are short stories but to call them shorts seems diminutive or self-evident. The short short is a clipped form — a typically lyric story that has been cut or modified or blown apart by the severe constraints of length. Anthologies of short shorts tend to be an assortment of oddities. Writers can perform tricks that wouldn’t be possible in short stories or sustainable for a novel. The stories in The Sky is a Well, however, are sober and deliberate and although each of them is complete, could easily become the beginning of a novel. I’ve heard a theory that one of the reasons that short stories books are not popular with general readers is that unlike a novel, a book of stories has a dozen beginnings: it is a lot of work to begin something. Because the setting of these stories are similar, the configuration of female narrator to troubled mother and absent father repeated, I didn’t really feel as though I was beginning stories over and over again but rather hearing different takes of the same central problem. And the stories themselves are models of concision. I once read an account of a Gordon Lish class where he extolled the students to create stories that were like shops in bottles. After someone reads the story, they marvel at how such a large object fit into such a tiny space.