A COUPLE OF MONTHS ago I was at the bookstore Book Passage in Corte Madera. I couldn’t find anything new I wanted to buy, but before I left empty-handed I stopped by the second-hand (nearly new? gently used?) bookshelf. There I found a collection of short stories set in Quebec and Paris by Mavis Gallant. I’m a big believer in buying used books on a whim without looking too far into why you’re attracted to them (this doesn’t apply to relationships). There’s a moment when you are reading the back cover or the first page and something clicks, and that’s it, that’s enough, do it, buy it, it’s only ten bucks. And usually it’s well worth it. It was in this case.
Mavis Gallant used to publish in the New Yorker decades ago, when they published short stories that appealed more to my taste. The collection I picked up, Across the Bridge, has a few stories with Quebec as the setting, and I’ve never really read much about that city. And apart from Alice Munro, I don’t read many Canadians. Why is that? I don’t know. But I instantly loved Across the Bridge. There’s an understated tone of something I can’t put my finger on in these stories, something rich and strange and complicated. Emotions that can’t get to the surface. Characters who live their odd lives as though they are mundane, and those who live mundane lives in a charged, eclectic fashion.
This is the type of story that used to be around a lot more, and that I miss. Stories that follow the artery of a character’s life in a focused, microscopic way, a way that makes you feel as though you know what it would be like to be them and to think their thoughts. It’s a great pleasure to be able to step inside someone else’s mind, and it goes a lot further than watching television, which does not immerse you, in my opinion, the way a good book immerses you in a character’s life. And I think it’s good for you, it’s good for all of us. It brings on compassion, or at the very least a slightly closer understanding of how someone else might view the world.
I have the feeling that now that indie publishing is on the rise, we might see more stories like this. Case in point is Paulette Alden’s new collection of short stories, Unforgettable. In these stories, we trace one character’s “regular” life (no vampires!): Miriam Batson, who works at a bookstore, teaches at a local college, grills hamburgers with her husband on a summer night, and experiences the death of her father and the decline of her mother.
Why would we want to read about such mundane events? But we do. It’s better than a support group (no one yammers on and on, for one thing), because the character who is sharing her experience is highly articulate, intelligent, and sensitive. Also interesting. I feel like I’ve gained some insights into my own life just by reading what Miriam Batson has to say about hers. It’s true that reading about a life that involves science fiction superheroes, say, or nineteenth century courtesans, or mystery-solving Swedish detectives can be great entertainment. But it turns out, so can reading about a life not too different from your own.