Brevity and the Soul

by Tom Jacobs

There is the apocryphal story in which Hemingway, sitting in a bar somewhere in Key West, is asked by an antagonistic admirer to follow his minimalism to its logical outcome and to tell a story in six words. As the story goes, Hemingway picks up a napkin and writes out the following words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This is a pretty good story. The reader has to kind of inhabit it and fill in all that is unsaid (which is pretty much everything), but there’s an inexhaustible sadness there in the spaces between the words. Everything pared away until there’s almost nothing left. The iceberg theory of fiction.

The genre of short short fiction (or microfiction, or whatever one might want to call it) is itself kinda small, and little of it is worth reading. But there are exceptions.

There’s this: “Sticks,” by George Saunders, perhaps the greatest super short story I’ve ever read:


Originally published in Story, Winter 1995.

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.

Here there is an entire novel’s worth of intrigue and emotional complexity and backstory and difficult familial relationships and unhappinesses and losses and redemptions. One can’t help but think of all those homes run by inexpressive and angry fathers who know something of love’s austere offices, these homes that suddenly erupt in holiday decorations that go waaay beyond the normal or expected. Rudolphs and Santas and baby Jesuses and lights and holly all over the place. This phenomenon…the phenomenon of the middle-to-lower-class father who has no creative outlet but finds an avenue in his front yard…this is an important aspect of contemporary life in the U.S., and one that needs more examination. There are dissertations here. And Saunders’ story is a most excellent jumping off point.

Then there is David Foster Wallace’s remarkable “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.”

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

I don’t think I’ve ever fully fathomed this one, but the final repetition of “now did one now did one now did one” is wildly suggestive. It seems to suggest something of the radical uncertainty of what it means to live in a world where everyone is wearing a face to meet the faces on the street.

Of course there are other forms and genres and things. Any good song is a mini-narrative. This is perhaps why Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” has always appealed to me. A man’s last night on the planet, desperately seeking one last shot of whiskey and to impart something of what he’s learned to another neophyte.

Then there’s the opening stanzas of poems. One of my all time faves is Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” He tells the whole story in the opening, and then goes back to fill in all the details and gaps. But it’s the opening that gets me. Remarkable:

There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The northern lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
When I cremated Sam McGee.

One can’t but want to know what happened…what were the conditions? What led to this? And why (and how) do you cremate a friend? The thing reverberates beyond itself. Like any good story, I suppose.

Anyway, I love this sort of thing, these short pieces that break your heart and break it fast. I want more. If anyone knows anything relevant, please post.

And I will leave you with one last piece. Short and sharp. Not a story, but a parable, which is like a story. It’s one that has haunted me for years. The applications are tremendous. It bears in its bones the possibility of reconstructing an entire civilization. Perhaps that’s too much to say, but I think that anthropologists in the distant future might read this and understand more of who we were and are than any number of novels might tell them. Of course we need Kafka here:

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.

–Franz Kafka (1883-1924), (transl. Clement Greenberg), from Parables and Paradoxes, 1946

There are leopards in our temples. I don't know whether this is a good or bad thing. But it's unquestionably an interesting thing.