‘The novel has to tell a story. A piece of short fiction doesn’t have to.’

24 August 2014 - Leave a Response

‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. This is the highest factor common to all novels …’[1]

EM Forster

What is a story? According to EM Forster, a story runs like a backbone to the novel.[2] It is defined as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence – dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death, and so on.’[3] A narrative means ‘a sequence of events, often (but not always) unified and connected in storytelling’[4]. As both ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ appear to have approximates meanings, in the sense that both describe events in sequence, telling us what happens next, both terms shall be used interchangeably in the essay.

In a novel, all events take place in time. Owing to this, ‘the allegiance to time is imperative: no novel could be written without it …’[5] Abolishing the time-sequence, says Forster, cannot be successful ‘unless the order of words in the sentences is also abolished, which in turn entails the abolition of the order of the letters or sounds in the words …’[6] Simply put, a story or a narrative could not exist without time.

For the sake of clarity, it is also necessary to define plot, to distinguish it from story. A plot is ‘also a narrative of event’, but the emphasis falls on causality.[7] At its simplest, plot is causal; it makes the reader ask, ‘Why? A ‘story’, on the other hand, makes a reader want to find out what happens next, and say, ’And then?’[8].

What is fiction? Is a novel a piece of fiction? Is a novel different from a short piece of fiction because the former tells a story, but the latter does not? Fiction is defined as ‘a narrative drawn from the author’s imagination, made up of an action or plot of imagined events involving imagined characters in imagined or imaginatively reconstructed settings’.[9] To write a piece of fiction, “you do not always need a plot. But you must have a narrative. Even the smallest, briefest, most delicate lyric poem has a narrative. The narrative is what happens’.[10] As a novel is a form of narrative and the elements present in fiction are also present in a novel (character, point of view, setting, plot, conflict, crisis, resolution), it appears that a novel is also a piece of fiction. If this is the case, it could be argued that as with the novel, the abolition of time-sequence in any length of fiction will also abolish the piece itself.

What is then the difference between the novel and short fiction? According to Janet Burroway, ‘the distinction between the two forms is very simple, and the many and profound possibilities of difference proceed from that simple source: A short story is short, and a novel is long.’[11] A short story usually contains no more than 8,000 words, a novella, between 7,000 and 40,000 words, and a novel, anything more than 50,000 words.

Because a piece of fiction narrates events in time, I would like to argue that every piece of fiction regardless of length tells a story. In connection with this, I would also like to explore the reasons why certain short pieces do not appear to tell a story.

For the purpose of this essay, I shall refer to two short stories from the set text: The Garden Party[12] by Katherine Mansfield and Sightseeing[13] by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. There are several reasons for selecting these stories. First, because of the effect they had on me as a reader, second, to show that even shorter pieces of fiction (as opposed to longer pieces and novellas in the set text) tell a story, and thirdly, because these are stories where supposedly ‘nothing much happens’ and their endings appear incomplete.

The Garden Party sets out the events in a day in the life of Laura Sheridan. This is what happens: Laura wakes up and has breakfast, she helps to prepare for the party, she finds out a neighbour has died, she tries to cancel the party but fails, the party takes place, the party ends, she goes to visit wife of dead man, she sees dead body, she goes home. This is ‘the narrative of events arranged in time sequence’ in The Garden Party. Some may say that ‘nothing much happens’ in it, as it appears more like a fictional episode, containing not much plot and no rounded course of action. However, as shown above, this is does not mean it has no story. The value of the story lies elsewhere; the stress is not laid upon cause and effect, but rather, the consciousness of the character. Between two events in a ‘story’, there intervenes a process[14]. That is where interest lies in the story: the emotional processes of the character, rather than plot or drama.

To show Laura’s sense of camaraderie with the workmen, for example, Mansfield wrote:

It’s all the fault, she decided … of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom … And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out. ‘Are your right there, matey?’ ‘Matey!’ The friendliness of it, the – the – Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter … She felt just like a work-girl. (40)

But we know that the moment she was needed on the telephone, ‘away she skimmed’, for all her feelings of connectedness with the workmen, ‘over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch.’ (40)

Time still progresses in The Garden Party but the movement takes place more slowly, accurate details are shown, and often, the ‘action’ occurs in the character’s thoughts. What creates tension and emotion in The Garden Party is the vacillation of the characters to which we are given access, particularly Laura’s, demonstrating Mansfield’s ability to ‘plop’ a human situation onto the reader’s consciousness and leave, vanishing without the reader noticing.[15] Thus, for a time, we become Laura; we feel her displacement, we feel her sense of bonding with the working classes, we share her excitement for the party, we feel flattered when she is complimented for her hat, all this without ever knowing why she is different from her siblings; almost as if it is taken for granted that we, as readers, would fill in the blanks ourselves. The interior of the story is ‘revealed unawares, as if the story itself is not interested in it.’[16] By her ‘unique intensity’ and preciseness of words, whether of beauty (At the Bay), or pity (Ma Parker) or indignation (The Doll’s House)[17], Mansfield allows the reader to discover her characters and connect the events of a story by more than their simple chronological sequence. By ‘assuming a relation between characters and events’[18], she make a story appear coherent.

Mansfield’s reason for the frequent absence of dramatic elements, often regarded as the hall-mark of the story-teller, must be sought in ethical rather than in literary considerations[19]. To discuss the point, I refer to the scene with the corpse, the climax of the story:

There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy … happy … All is well, said the sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

The Garden Party ‘appeal[s] primarily to the hearts of the readers, not their minds – the emotional invariably takes precedence to the intellectual.’[20] The meeting with the corpse (a character) is the ‘Wordsworthian’ moment in the story: we see Laura undergoing some sort of an internal transformation but the verbalising of it confined within the limits of the words that Laura, as a character, would know to describe transcendental feelings. Because of this, what could potentially be a metaphysical exploration becomes circumscribed by the fact that there are no expositional passages and can only be articulated within the limits of the character’s words and knowledge. Nevertheless, the meaning is not completely lost: in that moment, Laura realises that her excitement about the garden party, for example, is a shallow kind of happiness; a deeper happiness comes from accepting things as they are, through surrender.

It has been said that the exact point at which a fictional episode becomes a story cannot be fixed except by arbitrary distinctions … but ‘if substance and form provide no criteria for classification, the determining factor may be found in the spirit and colouring of any particular piece of writing.’[21] Sightseeing, similar to The Garden Party, is also about growing up and family relations, seen from the eye of a young character. As the title suggests, Sightseeing is about a boy who goes sightseeing with his mother, who is going blind. The story is as follows: boy receives offer to study in a college away from home, boy finds out mother is going blind, mother buys sunglasses, they go on holiday, mother loses sunglasses, they spend the night on an island, mother walks to a nearby island in the middle of the night, boy goes to fetch mother back.

But unlike The Garden Party, where identity is primarily indicated by class or feelings of rootlessness, the narrator in Sightseeing has doubts about whether he is being a good son; he find himself in a quandary about leaving his mother to go to college, knowing that she is going blind: ‘I cannot look at those maps without imagining my mother blind and alone in the house, and I’m starting to wonder, for the first time in my life, what kind of a son I really am?’ (79). He is reminded of his guilt when he sees the blind man playing the accordion in Trang: ‘For a moment, as we walk past, I wonder where his children are.’ (82) The narrator’s filial considerations rather than plot shine through in this story, exemplifying the typical Asian trait.

The setting of the story within paradisiacal locales, ‘the water like a clear skin stretched over the earth; the sand is fine and white and soft as a pillow, the schools of tiny rainbow fishes moving quickly in unison’ (93), also gives flavour to the story. Such descriptions may at first glance appear to exoticise the locations but taking the tone of the story as a whole, I am persuaded that such descriptions are used to show that ‘if things were different, if [the narrator’s and his mother’s] lives were simply following their ordinary course, we would never have taken the time to notice such sights’ (73), implying that when time is running out, even the things one takes for granted becomes beautiful. In addition to having narrative as its spine, it is also the spirit of the narrator’s predicament, which is felt throughout, that classifies Sightseeing as a story.

Additionally, in both The Garden Party and Sightseeing, precise details are employed to give colour to small and simple things, ‘cream puff’ (44) or ‘sunglasses’ (82), highlighting that the value of the stories lie in the intricacies found in the mundane, rather than the dramatic[22].

It is a convention that every piece of fiction, short or long, will have a beginning, middle and ending. A point which may be made about both The Garden Party and Sightseeing is the sense of indeterminacy in their endings. In The Garden Party, the story ends after Laura leaves the dead man’s house and meets her brother, Laurie, on the way home:

‘Was it awful?’

‘No,’ sobbed Laura. ‘It was simply marvellous. But Laurie –’ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life –’ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.

Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie. (51)

The above passage suggests that even though Laura’s emotions could not be put into words, her brother understood her. Mansfield appears to be using the incompleteness of her ending to transmit to the reader something which can be experienced but cannot be explained in words.

At the end of Sightseeing, we see the subtly changed of feelings in the narrator as he walks in the dark in search of his mother, from a sense of duty the mother to that of affection or even awe: ‘It’s my mother walking on water’ (97). There is also a sudden clarity: ‘And then, I see it. I see a thin luminous line … I see a thread … An opaque sandbar stretched …’ (97). We do not find out if the narrator will in fact go to college; all we know at the end is he walks ‘onto the sandbar … to watch the sunrise with Ma, and then bring her back before the tide heaves, before the ocean rises, before this sand becomes the seafloor again.’ (98)

In his short stories, Chekhov appears to be saying: ‘Life IS’, without adding anything more to that primal fact, not insistent to qualify the mere statement of fact, and to pronounce: Life – is good; is bad; is duty; is cruel; is beautiful, and so on. Just as we insist on codifying life, so we insist upon endowing literature with “meaning”, and so we clamour for completion and a full-orbed rendering of life.’[23]

Similarly, the lack of closure in the endings discussed above seem to indicate that life goes on, allowing the short fiction to simultaneously be a slice of life[24]. In the words of Nadine Gordimer, a short story is able to ‘convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like a flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of – the present moment.’[25]

Both the endings discussed imply that some sort of realisation has been gained by the narrators but none that can be directly explained in words later. In Sightseeing, it can only be approximated from the narrator’s impression while he looks towards his mother just before sunrise, facing the island with no name from the shore, leading to a subtle but meaningful change in the consciousness of the narrator. Ultimately, however, both pieces are only episodes in the characters’ lives. The story continues to unfold, time goes on; it has ‘controlled all the possibilities in it, but continues to live in terms of their own actual and lively existence.’[26]

A short piece of fiction may not have a conclusive ending; it may emphasise character or ethical considerations rather than plot, either through the consciousness of the character, or by effective use of setting. But, as can be seen from The Garden Party and Sightseeing, it does tell a story. In each piece, the events which took place could be narrated in relation to their time sequence. Like novelists, the writer of a short piece of fiction has to acknowledge the presence of time in his piece and ‘must cling, however lightly, to the thread of his story … otherwise he becomes unintelligible …’[27] Without this abidance to story, there will be no fiction, short or long.


[1] EM Forster,The Story”, Aspects of the Novel, ed. Oliver Stallybrass, (first published by Edward Arnold 1927, Penguin Classics 2000), p. 40.

[2] Ibid, p. 41.

[3] Ibid, p. 42.

[4] Ann Charters, “Glossary of Literary Terms”, The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 5th ed., (Bedford/St Martin’s 1999), p. 1729.

[5] EM Forster,The Story”, op cit, p. 43.

[6] Ibid, p. 53.

[7] EM Forster, “The Plot”, op cit, p. 87.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ann Charters, op cit, p. 1726.

[10] Patricia Duncker, “On Narrative Structures”, The Creative Writing Coursebook, ed. Julia Bell and Paul Magrs, (Macmillan 2001), p. 204.

[11] Janet Burroway, “Story Form and Structure”, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft, 5th ed., (Longman 2000), p. 41.

This raises the question, what are the possible differences between a novel and a short story arising from the difference in length? Perhaps one is the effect the form has on the reader. On page 42, Jannet Burroway states that a novel may ‘be comprehensive, vast and panoramic. It may have power, not because of its economy but because of its scope, breadth and sweep – the virtues of a medium that is long.’ With a short story, everything in the story has to bring about a single unified effect, and is end-oriented; in a novel, this is not necessary the case. Because of its length, a ‘short story strives for a single emotional impact and imparts a single understanding (as demonstrated by Poe), though both impact and understanding may be complex. The virtue of a short story is in its density.’

[12] Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories, (first published by Constable & Co 1922, Penguin Classics 2000). Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited in the text.

[13] Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Sightseeing, (Atlantic Books: London 2005). Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited in the text.

[14] Ibid, p. 18.

[15] Alfred C Ward, Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, (Folcroft Library Editions 1971), p. 286.

[16] John Bayley, The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen, (Harvester Press 1988), p. 185.

[17] Ibid, p. 295.

[18] Ann Charters, op cit, p. 1686.

[19] Ibid, p. 20.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Please see footnote 24.

[23] Alfred C Ward, Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, op cit, p. 282.

[24] On page 182, John Bayley, The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen, (Harvester Press 1988), it is stated: ‘The duality of a really good short story constitutes its expression of our human awareness that everything in life is full of significance, and at the same time that nothing in it has any significance at all. Every situation or event may have a story in it, but the short story’s best art will also reveal an absence: the absence of its own meaning. The story’s epiphany must also encounter and accept emptiness.

[25] Ann Charters, “A Brief History of the Short Story”, op cit, p. 1680.

[26] John Bayley, op cit, p. 35.

[27] EM Forster, The Story”, op cit, p. 43.

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‘Spinning Gears’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

24 July 2014 - 3 Responses

Diary of Torment

‘- I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?’

Ryunosuke Akutagawa, ‘Spinning Gears’, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, tr. Jay Rubin

Few short story endings are as chilling as the last paragraph of the posthumous Spinning Gears by Akutagawa. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that the author did kill himself at the age of 35, exactly 87 years ago today.

To me, the story itself is a literary masterpiece in the sense that it lingers in the mind for days after reading it; it beckons me to read it again and again, as if whispering that the answer to why one of Japan’s finest literary minds would take his own life lies somewhere in the text. Throughout his depiction of the protagonist’s descent into madness, Akutagawa’s language remains clear and his style deceptively simple, immersing the reader gradually into the narrator’s mind, thus making the story’s ending all the more terrifying.

The story opens with the first person narrator taking a taxi to the train station and being told by a fellow passenger about a ghost who wears a raincoat. Concerned about missing his train to Tokyo, the protagonist dismisses the story but as soon as he reaches the station, he spots a man in a raincoat. The angel-of-death-like appearance of this rain-coated apparition marks the beginning of the collapse of the protagonist’s mind and its presence continues to shadow him everywhere he went: on the train, at the hotel in Tokyo, on the city streets. Later, he would learn that his brother in-law had committed suicide by throwing himself under a train wearing a mere raincoat in spite of it being the coldest time of the year.

Symbols of death and decay pervade the narrative: the appearance of maggots on the narrator’s dinner plate; the reflection of his own face in the mirror revealing the bones beneath his skin; a dog passing him in the streets four separate times or the crows cawing four times assuming significance simply because number four in Japanese is also a homonym for death. Books picked up a random all seem to taunt him, depict his life or predict his death. In the Maruzen bookstore, the caption on a poster of St George slaying a dragon reminds him of the character ‘dragon’ which he uses in his own name; the knight’s face resembles the face of his enemy. This in turn reminds him of a story about the art of slaughtering dragons, a metaphor for a useless skill: writing. Throughout the narrative, we find the narrator’s mind combining, recombining, associating and re-associating isolated incidents, hallucinations or otherwise, to give them meaning: each event a portent of his own death.

From Akutagawa’s own suicide note, A Note to a Certain Old Friend, it seems to me that these tropes of death are no less than metaphors for the self-confessed thoughts of death which had plagued the author in the last couple of years of his life. In other words, it seems to confirm the view that if one is constantly on the look out for signs one is bound to find it everywhere.

In the midst of his anxieties, optical illusions would assault the narrator in the form of a set of translucent spinning gears whose numbers would increase until half his field of vision was blocked, and then vanish within moments, to be replaced by a headache. At other times, warnings of death would plague him through acousma or auditory hallucinations whether in the form of overheard conversations between strangers, or whispers in the night, telling him that diable est mort, the devil is dead. Commentators such as Haruki Murakami and Jorge Luis Borges have suggested Spinning Gears to be an allegory for the disintegrating machinery of modern life, the author’s indictment on the collision between western/eastern cultures at the turn of the 19th century and its harrowing effect on an individual’s psyche. Bit by bit, we also learn about the narrator’s (and Akutagawa’s own) crippling fear of inheriting his mother’s madness, and his attempts to drown out his anxieties with drugs including Veronal: the same pills which Akutagawa would use to end his life.

Of course, the reader can never really know the actual reasons why Akutagawa contemplated suicide. In A Note to a Certain Old Friend, he himself confessed that ‘no one who attempts suicide … is fully aware of all his motives, which are usually too complex’; all he knew of his own suicide was that it was driven by ‘a vague sense of anxiety, a vague sense of anxiety about my own future.’

However, given that a writer’s self-esteem, especially one of Akutagawa’s stature, is often inextricably linked with his reputation, I began to explore to what extent his death was hastened by his insecurities as a writer.

Young Man of Shou Ling

Murakami in his introduction to Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories likened Akutagawa to a ‘pianist who has been born with a natural gift for superb technique. Because his fingers move so swiftly and with such clarity, the task of pausing occasionally to look long and hard at something – at the inner depths of the music – can be inhibited before he is aware of it. His fingers move with natural speed and grace and his mind hurries to keep up. Or perhaps his mind forges ahead and the fingers hurry to keep up. In either case an unbridgeable gap begins to form between him and the movement of time of the world around him. Just a gap almost certainly added to Akutagawa’s pscychological burdens and impelled him towards suicide.’

In the text of Spinning Gears itself, the narrator alludes to being the perfect ‘Young Man of Shou Ling’, the protagonist of a Chinese story by Han Fei, whose name Juryo Yoshi the narrator had ironically used as a pen name earlier on in his writing career. In the story, the protagonist had left the rural village to learn the elegant walking style of the city dwellers of Handan but found himself crawling home because he had forgotten to walk in the Shou Ling style before mastering the Handan style. As an analogue to Akutagawa’s own life, it seems to imply that owing to his meteoric rise, Akutagawa had begun his career by flying before learning how to walk, and as a result had skipped certain stages which were critical to his development as a writer. Among them, I believe, is learning how to fail. Having been feted as a prodigy by no less than the literary legend Natsume Soseki very early in his career, Akutagawa had not only lost out in terms of building up his resilience to failure and the criticism of his peers, he had also never found, in Murakami’s words, ‘that single thing he absolutely had to write about.’

In an attempt to advance his work, Akutagawa began to write in the confessional ‘I-Novel’ style, basing his fiction closely on the facts of his life. With hindsight, Akutagawa had written these last stories, replete with self-examinations and recriminations, to his detriment. By its very formulation, the author of the ‘I-Novel’ must also be the protagonist of the story and the genre is one which exposes the dark side of the author’s life. Given Akutagawa’s hypersensitivity, this type of writing would hinder him as the author from keeping an objective distance from his protagonist. I also believe that his very act of committing his dark thoughts to writing had the effect of reinforcing them in his mind, perhaps even to the extent of subconsciously devising in his last manuscripts the blueprint and rationale for his own suicide.

If one’s own writing is indeed a reflection of oneself, I shudder to think what Akutagawa must have felt when he looked in his mirror of ink and saw the face of the man whom he knew in his heart of hearts will commit murder; his own.

Dark Night of the Soul

Akutagawa may well have written fiction such as Spinning Gears with his life as subject-matter to seek refuge from his acute despair, but it seems that this same introspection had led him to conclude that nothing was real.

‘I began to feel that anything and everything was a lie. Politics, business, art, science: all seemed just a mottled layer of enamel covering over this life in all its horrors.’

The narrator’s paranoia concerning fires and images of inferno flashing through his mind suggest that the layer of illusion was burning right before his eyes, revealing nothing but horror. Life as he knew it had lost all meaning.

Something about the narrator’s identification with the spiritual struggles of the protagonist in Naoya Shiga’s A Dark Night’s Passing alerts me to the possibility that the narrator could be going through nothing less than the dark night of the soul, in the mystical sense; the fires and infernos he was seeing, synonymous with the shattering of the mind’s attachment to the ego; and the horror he was experiencing, the realisation of the void, or nothingness. We often hear of mystics suffering frightening periods of depression or ‘darkness’ in the interim period before their enlightenment, and many had even contemplated suicide.

Could it be that Akutagawa had given a negative interpretation to what was actually a blessing in disguise? Could it be that having reached the very end of his intellect, Akutagawa had mistakenly perceived the void confronting him as nothing more than a prelude to madness? And rather than acknowledging the death of his ego he had chosen to kill his body instead, thus depriving himself of what could be the most transformative experience of his self? Of course, these are mere speculations, and one cannot know for certain.

Something niggles though; reading the postscript to A Note to A Certain Old Friend, the romantic in me cannot help but feel that had he hung on to his life a little longer and surrendered to his experiences, he would have gained what he had desired all his life but forsaken through his death: ‘to make a god of [him]self’.

Lethal Weapon

24 November 2013 - One Response

A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us.

Franz Kafka