Straight Man—and short stories

For a really funny book, try Straight Man, which, like its literary predecessor Lucky Jim, takes place in academia. Lucky Jim is better than Girl, 20, another Kingsley Amis novel—Lucky Jim has many of its strengths and none of its flaws. Straight Man builds on Lucky Jim and the other campus novels that preceded it; the good news about life, whether academically or elsewhere, is that it provides plenty of absurdity for writers.

Straight Man finds academics fighting for budget and prestige like dogs over a scrap of meat, while the more reasonable narrator stumbles, perhaps intentionally into ludicrous situations—such as threatening while on camera to strangle a goose, which he calls a duck—in part because of his environment. It’s a long book that never its pacing or jokes; I’m thinking about Straight Man in the context of an e-mail I sent about why I prefer novels to short stories. By the time I get into a short story it’s already over, and I’m forced to learn a new set of names and circumstances and assorted other trivia that too often feels too much like trivia. The kinds of longitudinal narrative arcs (and jokes) that make the best novels what they are interest me, and short stories by their nature cannot encompass them. One could certainly argue the opposite, and I’m not about to quibble with taste, but I understand mine well enough to know what I like.

And I like Straight Man because it takes us through Hank Devereaux’s world. That means repeated references to William of Occam’s Razor, the ultimate fate of the duck, and the way his students, peers, and superiors inadvertently conspire against him. Or he conspires against all of them, depending on one’s perspective (“Orshee,” who adds “or she” to any sentence referring to a person of indeterminate gender with a singular male pronoun, would no doubt consider Hank a nemesis). That’s not to say I always demand brontosaurus novels, as I also like some that are closer to nibbles—Tom Perrotta writes short, for instance—as well as really long ones, such as Neal Stephenson’s awesome, 1,000 page opus: Cryptonomicon.

Bear in mind that I like novellas too: Heart of Darkness, if that counts, and Byatt’s Angels & Insects—which, like Possession, takes place in the Victorian era. But both are long enough to engage me and last long enough that I can get my bearings in the story’s world.

Once I’m fully in a novel, I don’t want it to end; my real issue with short stories might be that either a) I don’t have enough time to decide a short story is excellent before it’s over or b) even if I do decide it’s excellent, I know how quickly it will end. Short stories are vehicles for the pure power of language, while most novels have more plot to unfold. As the title of this blog shows, stories—their content—is what I most care about. Obviously form can never be fully separated from content and vice-versa, but if you put them on a continuum, I want more of the story. And that usually means novels.

Straight Man has both, and it is Richard Russo’s best novel, followed just behind by Empire Falls. Short stories, though, don’t, and though I read them when I had to for school, I never really wanted to. So now I read chiefly for pleasure, and few books offer as much as Straight Man.

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